In the news this week it was reported that the proportion of school leavers who got a job last year slumped to the lowest level for a decade amid the uncertainty caused by Covid. The latest official figures show that 47,454 pupils left school last summer, and that nine months after they left 66.5% were in Higher or Further Education, the highest since records began in 2009. However, in contrast the number in employment was down from 28% to 21.3%, the lowest figure since records began. Also more worryingly, the percentage of school leavers who were unemployed increased from 5.8% in 2018/19 to 6.8% for last year's leavers.
Over the past decade there has been a significant rise in the number of pupils staying at school beyond 16. Is this a good thing in itself? Or is the education system simply having to adapt to the fact that in the modern world there are fewer good jobs for young people, and that unskilled jobs are disappearing? It is an interesting philosophical question to contemplate - one quite distinct from the question of ensuring all young people can achieve their potential in education, regardless of wealth or family background. The suspicion of some has always been that the education system has had to soak up youngsters who might otherwise have been unemployed - either because of economic problems or the gradual disappearance of some unskilled jobs. Backed by the fact that the number of so-called NEETs ( youngsters who are ‘Not in Education, Employment or Training) is at a very low level by historic standards. So we return to the question: is a school system where it is unusual for a youngster to leave early and a college system which has to find places for those who would otherwise be unemployed achieving something positive in itself? Or is it merely parking the youth unemployment problem?
Few people would argue that educational opportunities should not be as widely available as possible. But the issue touches on an intriguing question. Once, it was possible to leave school with grades and get a job with prospects. Not so long ago, many good jobs were available to youngsters. Today, other than apprenticeships, most good jobs for young people require a college or university qualification first. So is the education system having to deal with the practical effect of economic change? De-industrialisation and automation mean many of the unskilled, entry level jobs once filled by school-leavers no longer exist. Or what changes are required to help to provide the workforce the economy needs?
The argument is that England, like every advanced country, needs as skilled a workforce as possible to compete internationally and fulfil its potential. A skilled workforce does not just mean turning out scientists and surgeons - it means hairdressers and staff for the hospitality industry too. Once, fewer people in those industries would have received any formal college training and might simply have learned on the job or served a traditional apprenticeship. But the argument is that a proper course and training raises standards and allows the best to shine. Anecdotally, of course, many of the genuinely unskilled jobs which those with few qualifications may once have done (say stacking shelves in the supermarket) are now done by students or those with college or university qualifications who find themselves "underemployed" . Indeed, while the number of young people at university is close to a historic high, a significant proportion of graduates do not secure what would be seen as graduate-level jobs even if few would do unskilled work for long. None of this is to suggest a good education is not of value in itself, even if it does not lead to someone getting a better job than they may have got otherwise. But perhaps it is interesting to reflect on how in the space of barely 40 years since the 1970s, the time someone routinely spends in education has increased. Once, a basic education ended at 15; and now really low numbers are leaving the educational system to take up jobs and apprenticeships.
Our team at Heyllo! are championing a campaign to help all young people ‘Feel Awesome’ and a core part of this campaign is to ensure all young people have the opportunity and chance to get high quality jobs and apprenticeships. If you want to join the campaign, you can pledge your support by signing up using this link https://www.heyllo.co.uk/pledge.html
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