More places available at university, but future precarious for many school leavers

What future does this envelope hold? Ben Birchall/PA Archive

I have worked with young people all my life, as a youth worker, academic teacher and youth policy adviser. I have observed their trajectories, listened to their aspirations, supported them in the steps they have taken and sought to influence policy that might produce purposeful and positive pathways to responsible adulthood – in their personal lives, civic engagement and in the labour market.

Qualifications, such as A Levels and GCSEs, have always been a critical factor in shaping young people’s futures, though they have not always been essential.

The cohort of early school leavers with whom I worked as a youth worker at the end of the 1970s have largely stayed in skilled and unskilled manual employment throughout their lives. Most had no qualifications at all, or just enough to secure apprenticeships or lower white-collar work. Yet nearly all their children completed A Levels and many went to university – though few have secured a firm foothold in the labour market.

Austerity’s children

But even their situation is by no means as precarious and uncertain as it is for those getting their A Level results this summer. Today’s 18-year-olds were just 12 when the financial crisis began in 2008, and have lived their formative teenage years in austerity Britain.

We hear mixed stories about the position and perceptions of those young people. Some reports suggest they remain remarkably optimistic, more than ready to make their own way in a world that has changed dramatically over the past 30 years, and particularly since the start of the financial crisis.

Others point to their pessimism, even desperation and despondency, about the world they have to face. Certainly there are terrifying numbers of young people who are not in education, employment or training, routinely horribly described as “NEET”. Limited government youth training and employment initiatives have largely been ineffective.

And under the new benefits regime, being unemployed presents a nightmare scenario for the young, with the long-term unemployed required to attend the Job Centre every day or work for nothing.

Embedding privilege

For the new A Level achiever, there are few guarantees, save the strong possibility of pursuing further studies at university. Theoretically, there are options to take a different course (in both senses of the word) and certainly in the new creative and cultural industries new paths are opening up.

But for the majority of young people at the end of their final year of schooling, the path will divide into those who go to university and those who seek to access vocational training and the labour market directly. For all but the most privileged (who will be cushioned and cosseted through both parental financial resources and the increasingly important benefits of nepotistic parental networks), both paths are likely to be a rocky road.

Those young people who gain places at elite British universities should be fine. They are likely to have a sufficiently attractive blend of human capital (qualifications), social capital (contacts) and identity capital (self-presentation knowledge and skills).

Others, however well they continue to perform in academic terms, are likely to be less well-prepared. They will face intense competition from other young people with very similar backgrounds, experiences, competencies and characteristics.

Get straight to work

Opting for earlier entry into the labour market carries comparable distinctions between the advantaged and those facing an uphill struggle. Some young people will be successful through an effective blend of good fortune, personal resourcefulness and a (financial and networking) helping hand from families, friends and relatives.

A daily haunt for some. Danny Lawson/PA Wire

Many others, after months of effort, will find themselves tagged with the dreadful “NEET” label and placed at the mercy of those charged with motivating shirkers and skivers to return to work – even if they never started. After such debilitating experiences, some will inevitably return to education. Research has told us for a long time that the take-up of further and higher education opportunities is often as much the product of the push of unemployment as the pull of learning.

There is, of course, the option of self-employment, currently being hailed as one key factor in the current “recovery”. Among the young, this may work for a very few. For most who try it, it is likely to be a temporary measure in predictable, under-capitalised and saturated sectors of the labour market – as young people wait for something more secure to turn up. And there are strong arguments that entrepreneurship is not for the young. There are also risks with blaming enterprising young people who give something a go and then are deemed to “fail”.

No time to abandon the young

These days, young people need so much more than their two or three A Levels. They need versatility, resilience and support as well as a modicum of good luck. Whatever route young people take at 18, they need to develop what are routinely described as “soft skills” in order to cope with the ups and downs and twists and turns of increasingly rapid social and economic change.

And where young people find themselves in cul-de-sacs, they must not be abandoned there. Politicians of all persuasions should be encouraged to consider the ideas on social renewal relating to young people that are enshrined in IPPR’s recent report The Condition of Britain.

A Level achievement is the pinnacle of formal learning in school, usually achieved in parallel with the age of majority. Young people invariably want to build on that success, an entry point to adulthood, in a number of ways. There is an economic rationale, social need and moral duty to help them to do it.

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