Jayne Dowle: Our region’s children deserve better

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MY big policy idea for Yorkshire would concentrate on young people. If we don’t give our sons and daughters the tools to take the next steps in life, we are failing them. And we’re failing ourselves. We stand guilty of standing back whilst a generation goes to waste. I don’t think we give in that easily in Yorkshire, do we?

We have long been a proud region of self-starters. We’ve produced ground-breaking entrepreneurs. Given birth to amazing athletes, footballers and cricketers. Nurtured and inspired some of the most influential artists and writers the world has seen. Yet, our schools are regularly distinguished by some of the worst results in the country. And too many of our teenagers leave education with no clear idea about what they want to do. Our record on NEETS (youngsters not in employment, education or training) is not one we want to brag about.

This has prevailed for too long. And now, it is being made worse by the escalating number of children growing up in poor homes. Yorkshire has the highest level of child poverty in the UK, with one in four of our region’s children are starting out without the basic necessities for life. What kind of future do they have?

Bring into this a plethora of other issues, such as ill-health and obesity, third or fourth generation unemployment, and the growing numbers of children without a decent grasp of spoken and written English, and you have a perfect storm of disadvantage. Such a complex situation demands a complex plan of attack.

How to tackle such a myriad set of difficulties and create a framework in which children can grow up benefitting from every chance possible? Politicians need to start thinking and planning in joined up terms. It is no good railing about poor school results and ignoring the fact that many children won’t even have a table on which to do their homework, let alone internet access at home. State intervention in family life is a tricky balancing act. The last thing any politician wants to do is further enable the dependency culture which blights our communities. Step one then, would be to release funding to staff homework clubs in schools, and to support educational initiatives in libraries and community centres.

Step two would be to make sure every youngster understands the opportunities available to them and the steps necessary to get there. This is not just trotting out a list of GCSEs, it’s about getting through to hearts and minds. It’s about raising aspirations and ambitions, and saying “why not?”

As part of my policy, I’d like to see solid careers advice, from the earliest years of secondary school. We forget that young people have a very fragmentary understanding of the world. They might see what they want to do, but have very little understanding of how to get there. For instance, how many would-be hairdressers or caterers know that chemistry is a fundamental subject for a career in those fields? It is important to raise aspirations, but at the same time it is vital that we manage expectations. When I taught journalism, I never failed to be amazed by the number of students who assumed they would be writing the front page without even grasping the basics of grammar and spelling. Too many young people see a glamorous or interesting career on TV and think they can do the same without putting the work in.

I don’t know if it’s laziness or lack of confidence. Whatever it is, I see it all the time: grand career dreams but no comprehension of the hard work required. This is where politicians will really have to flex their muscles. I’d like to see a properly-funded programme in all secondary schools which brings in mentors from business and public services to talk to pupils about what it’s really like in the big, hard world of work.

I know that some schools do this already. However, it’s not on the curriculum so it won’t be mandatory. It should be. There is no substitute for first-hand experience, nothing which betters a real live person in front of the class talking and answering questions. Who knows? You might even persuade a politician or two to take part. And then they would really be well-placed to understand that although ambition and aspiration can’t be taught, they can be created and supported.

TOMORROW: Andrew Vine