Jayne Dowle: Stop and consider future for all our young people

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GET ready for the breathless phone calls from family members, the congratulatory Facebook posts and the news footage of impossibly photogenic teenagers waving pieces of paper in the air.

Be prepared for the triumphant announcements from local councillors and MPs, which typically run along the lines of: “Congratulations to all our students on their achievements. The town is very proud of you.” Yes, today is A level results day. All eyes will be on those who, in a matter of seconds, are about to discover the course of the rest of their life.

Spare a thought though for the students who haven’t made the grade for their intended degree. They now face the nerve-racking prospect of deciding whether to spend thousands of pounds of their own and their parents’ money embarking on an alternative course which might never suit their needs. Don’t disregard those youngsters who decided that academic qualifications were not their ambition, and have opted instead for vocational training or an apprenticeship. Accounting, engineering, IT, business administration and hospitality are the most sought-after careers among those who have calculated that university is not for them, according to a new survey by the website www.notgoingtouni.co.uk.

Remember – too –the millions of young people for whom further education was never a viable option, those who through lack of financial support, lack of good teaching, poor careers advice or for whatever reason, are still flailing about deciding what to do with heir lives.

According to the latest report from the IPPR think-tank, almost one million young people in the UK are classified as “NEETs”, not in education, employment or training. You won’t see them celebrating their A-level results on Look North. And don’t forget to ask – where were those self-congratulatory politicians when tuition fees were being raised, when the education maintenance allowance was being scrapped and Further Education courses were being curtailed due to a lack of funding.

It is so easy to get caught up in the excitement. Really though, what today should do is to make us stop and consider the future for all our young people, not just those who have achieved the coveted points for the degree of their dreams. In context, these are just the lucky few. It is worth remembering English 18-year-olds from the most advantaged backgrounds are almost three times more likely to go to university than youngsters from the most disadvantaged areas.

We should also by wary of giving false hope to our young people that all they need is three decent A-levels and a university place and the world will be at their feet. Wealth and privilege increasingly buys a place at the very top universities, and this in turn fast-tracks graduates into the higher echelons of the most desirable and influential careers such as politics, the media and law.

It would be insidious to suggest that politicians have done nothing to redress the balance and attempt to make things fairer for all. For instance, much political capital has been made out of the proposed changes to A-levels suggested by Michael Gove, the former Education Secretary. Critics of these long-established qualifications argue that their focus is too narrow. Although they give students a thorough grounding in their chosen academic subjects, it is said that the remit is not broad enough and they don’t foster independent learning. Who knows what Gove’s successor, Nicky Morgan, will do with them. But one thing is clear. Whatever reforms to A-levels occur in the next few years, they must not be carried out in isolation. The prospects for today’s teenagers are so important, so vital to the future economic success of this country, that all options must be considered. And this means addressing more than just the academic approach.

As the IPPR report points out, youth unemployment is lower in countries where the vocational route into employment through formal education and training is made as clear and enticing as the academic choice. While all the attention is on how fit for purpose A-levels are, we should consider the quality of vocational education and training equally, because it can raise the status of this route in the eyes of young people, their parents and employers.

The report also pulls no punches about how schools should prepare young people for making the right decisions about their future. Careers education and guidance play a crucial role in ensuring a smooth transition from education to work in European countries with low rates of youth employment. England is not one of them. This advice has been neglected and not modernised for years.

To this end, the IPPR recommends that every secondary school should be required to appoint a full-time careers officer responsible for careers education and liaison with local employers. In turn, local employers should be encouraged to get more involved with schools and forge links which lead to jobs. Let the lucky ones wave their pieces of paper in the air with excitement today then. The rest of us however, can’t afford to celebrate until all of the above has been achieved.