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past two decades, rising divorce rates and increased numbers of unmarried parents had had an enormous and poorly-documented effect on the labour market ‘careers’ of young women, particularly those from working-class backgrounds. It was true that young men were much more

likely to be officially

unemployed. Yet if the numbers of young women on lone-parent benefits were added to the statistics, the proportion out of the labour market equalled that of unemployed young men. In January 2005 a total of 166,000 young women between the ages of 18-24 were claiming lone-parent Income Support. It seemed to me that most of those young women were left with slim chances of gaining any but the lowest-paid work in the future.

Other opportunities So, it seemed that children being born now in the poorer communities in the United Kingdom were entering a world which had changed. The opportunities that were open to their parents and grandparents were not open to them. But, conversely, a quick glance would suggest there were other opportunities – perhaps more attractive ones – which were open to them. The proportion of young people staying on at school in those areas had risen dramatically, for instance. So too, though to a lesser degree, had the proportion of young people going on into higher education. Yet, despite this, many of the young people I met seemed stuck, both geographically and socially.

None of the young people I met on this journey came from ‘London’ or ‘Manchester’ or ‘Barnsley’. They came from Wombwell or Collyhurst or Cheetham Hill. Many of my interviewees said young people in their areas were extremely territorial and reluctant to work outside their own, often very small, neighbourhood. A Connexions worker described a conversation she had with a young woman who wanted to be a hairdresser, but who didn’t want to go outside her home village in the Dearne Valley – where there was just one hairdresser’s. On London’s Isle of Dogs, a youth worker told me youngsters were reluctant to go to college in Poplar, a mile away. ‘They get a nosebleed if they go off the island,’ she said. Often a journey of only a few miles was just too long – both geographically and culturally. Viewed from one angle, this reluctance to travel seemed nonsensical. When I looked at the histories of those areas, though, this territoriality began to make sense. In the past, housing had been built close to where the jobs were, and there had been no need for people to travel. There had been no need for them to travel socially, either. By passing on trades from father to son and mother to daughter, families stayed together within their neighbourhoods. Aspiration could only lead to loss, because sons or daughters who aspired would leave and go to live elsewhere. One thing I found very striking about the


areas I visited – particularly in Barnsley and Manchester – was the strength of their social networks. Families whose financial resources were slight made good, practical use of those networks by supporting one another. Yet with the jobs gone elsewhere, or not offering the opportunities those families craved, that adherence to place became a major factor which inhibited young people’s life chances. We know aspiration is transmitted through families and communities – by the time children start school, those from poorer homes already have lower reading scores than those from more affluent families. At the age of five, 63 per cent of boys and 75 per cent of girls on free school meals reach the expected level in reading, compared with 83 per cent and 91 per cent of those who are not. And while, in the past, the families I met had not needed to aspire to higher educational achievement, now they did. But they didn’t fully under- stand the requirements of today’s labour market.

‘My husband just said “no, she’s not going to college”,’ one mother told me. ‘He says if she’s not going to try, she isn’t going to try at college. He left school on a Friday and started work on a Monday. He’s always worked and he’s gone the hard way to get where he’s got.’ Most of these parents – even this mother – did want their children to achieve more than they had through education. But they lacked information, and that gap was not filled either by their children’s schools or by the careers advisers they met. The main job of schools, in pushing pupils through the gateway into the post-16 world, seemed to be in hanging on to those who might stay into the sixth form. The rest would be nudged towards college courses, with little or no information on what might or might not lead them to a job in their local area. Indeed, no information about local labour markets was usually available, and nor were there any structured careers lessons at school. So young people often ended up on courses which were not matched by opportunities in their areas. One college principal told me there was a serious mismatch between the course she was running and the jobs to which they could lead. ‘One of the fastest growing industries here is logistics and transport, and we’ve been trying to get a course going for three years. It’s just not going. They don’t understand what it is,’ she told me. ‘At the moment we have eight students signed up for September. Construction is full to bursting, beauty is full to bursting, sport is full to bursting. But the areas where there are jobs – business, IT, logistics – there’s still capacity in there.’ So, the young people I met did seem in a way to have been born to fail. They were born into families which had not needed educational aspiration in the past, and who lived in communities which had struggled to keep pace with changes in the labour market. They went to schools which were sometimes

unambitious for them, and they were allowed, by a failure of support and guidance, to carry through wrong assumptions on to supposedly vocational courses in further education colleges – which often did not lead to a relevant job.

Support and guidance Yet not everything I saw was negative. Yes, these young people often faced apparently insurmountable problems. The surprise, then, was not so much that so many of them failed – but that a significant proportion of them didn’t. More than once, I met a young person who appeared to have been floundering in a sea of family disharmony, drugs and petty crime – only to see them change, apparently overnight, when they were given good support and guidance by an adult who stuck with them and didn’t judge them.

One day, for example, I sat with an

outreach worker called Julie, talking to a 16 year old called Sandra who had a one-year- old son. The girl was pale, overweight, and looked as if she hadn’t been out of the house since her little boy was born. Would she be interested in going back into education? Julie asked. No. She didn’t do education. What about a mother and toddler group? She didn’t do groups, either. Connexions? Boring.

I thought Julie hadn’t a chance. But within a fortnight she had enticed Sandra out to the local park, and from there into a centre run by her charity, Rathbone, and then on to Connexions. The teenager had started washing her hair, her shoulders had gone back and she was planning to do childcare at college. In short, she’d started to believe in herself – because she’d met an adult who seemed to believe in her too. Of course, the youth outreach workers I met did often fail, and would sometimes build apparently strong relationships that would fall apart because circumstances changed – or because their short-term contracts came to a premature end. But it did seem to me that there was a glimmer of hope, in the voluntary sector. I ended my journey wondering what had happened to old- fashioned mentoring. ‘You used to have labourers’ mates,’ the boss of a training scheme told me. ‘You had gofers for plumbers and electricians. You don’t have any of that now.’

It seemed to me that if we wanted to have

real hope for the future of Britain’s most vulnerable young people, we needed to reinvent these roles. In short, we needed a small army of Julies to pick them up and hold their hands while they made their way into the adult world.

Fran Abrams is an investigative journalist and author of Learning to Fail: How society lets young people down, published by Routledge

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