Neat but wrong – Stop blaming the young for youth unemployment

Originally posted on the Huffington Post

The ‘NEET’ problem is in many respects, politically tidy. It reaches across the political divide, appealing at once to notions of justice based on equality as well as individual responsibility. Ensuring every young person has the opportunity to make the most of the life is a central plank of modern progressive and conservative ideologies.

That political position, if the scale of the problem itself is not sufficient, goes some way to explaining the attention the stubborn problem of high youth unemployment has received from across the political spectrum, not only from political parties but organisations from the TUC to the CBI which have found some common ground.

Yet, despite the attention the NEET challenge has received since the onset of Great Recession, as well as the degree of political consensus, the problem remains as potent as ever. The most recent government statistics in fact showed a slight increase in the number of NEETs in the last quarter.

For those of us who work in the skills sector; in Colleges and training providers, as well as in businesses that employ young people, the fact that the number of NEETs is still growing, while not a surprise – it’s difficult to be surprised at familiar news – is a frustration. We know for instance that the number of apprenticeship vacancies has been steadily increasing and anecdotally, large numbers of employers and providers struggle to attract candidates for apprenticeship positions.

Of course, there are many explanations for that apparent incoherence, the level of pay of many apprenticeships, poor careers advice in schools and the general stigma attached to vocational education in the UK, for instance, all play their part.

All of these contribute to a perceived skills gap; the distance between the skills young people possess and the skills employers require. Far more common place however than any of the explanations above, has been a general trend to focus on employability. Putting employability at the centre of education has become so regular it now forms a pillar of ‘common-sense’ policy making.

Education policy has become synonymous with skills policy, despite huge variations in what is meant by the term ‘skill’ or ‘employability’, it is common place for any discussion of education, particularly post-compulsory education,  by policy makers or journalists to revert to those terms more or less uncritically. That position, which has seen the language of ‘learning and skills’ replace almost entirely the concept of education, betrays not only an individualism which places responsibility for learning, as well employment outcomes at the foot of the individual and their educators (upskillers?) and away from the Government or employers, but also a narrow-sighted diagnosis of persistent youth unemployment as a simple skills mismatch.

In the politics of full-employability the solution to those young people who are NEET is logically simple – ensure they are given the skills that employers require and that unrealised demand will allow the economy to flourish.

Yet, there is one major limitation to that diagnosis – not to mention the highly questionable position that improving the supply of labour will lead to more or better jobs –young people aren’t as rubbish as is often made out. In fact, they’re fairly accomplished.

The UKCES recently asked 18,000 employers about their perspective on recruitment, skills and education. Unsurprisingly, 25% of 16 year old school leavers were found to lack life experience or maturity. Lack of time spent alive is a difficult issue to remedy.  In contrast, just 3% were deemed to have a poor education, and that figure reduces to 1% for College and University leavers. Similarly 73% of College leavers were deemed, by employers, to be well-prepared for work. Which doesn’t sound like an employability crisis.

Even more starkly, of all employers asked, less than 2% thought College leavers lacked the right skills for the jobs on offer and only 0.24% thought College leavers lacked the necessary literacy or numeracy skills. The NEET problem then is not an employability problem.

In their Action Plan the OECD place policies to strengthen the employability of young people as secondary to measures to directly tackle youth unemployment, such as providing income support and encouraging employers to provide routes to the labour market.

And that last point is crucial – tackling youth unemployment must be regarded as a mutual endeavour, a societal problem with societal remedies. In the same UKCES survey, in which 92% of employers believed work experience was valuable in the recruitment of young people, just 38% said they offered work placements and when asked what it would take to begin offering work experience, the most common response from those who didn’t, was ‘nothing.’

Evidently, young people, like all people, must take responsibility for their own choices and actions. But blaming the continuing rise of young people deemed to be NEETs on young people is not only stopping policy makers from finding the right conclusions, it is in many ways simply inaccurate.

Young people are an easy target, and talking about employability and skills kill a number of ideological birds in one swoop. But chasing full employability is not a solution to the plight of NEETs and demonising the young and out of work is irresponsible. We need to stop blaming young people and start taking the social responsibility to provide good jobs seriously.

One Nation, one system

Labour has taken a vocational turn. Tristram Hunt’s conference proclamation that we will see ‘the old barriers between academic and technical crumbling under the next Labour government, righting the wrongs of the last five years’ is confirmation.

Having lost the initiative on education to an unambiguously successful political minister in Michael Gove, Labour has gone someway to re-establishing its dominance over a policy area once seen as its three priorities for government. While Ed Miliband remains apparently distanced from education policy – he has not seriously intervened on education in any of his previous conference speeches – the spokes around him are turning quickly. The party, in Andrew Adonis, Liam Byrne, and the Skills Taskforce have placed education, and importantly vocational education, at the centre of Labour’s thinking as we prepare for the general election.

Yet despite the tone the party is taking, the evident recognition that high-quality, well-regarded vocational education is essential to creating an equitable and effective education system, the solutions; a technical baccalaureate, technical degrees, and institutes of technical education, fall short of creating a ‘one nation’ education system.

This shortcoming is symptomatic of a false premise at the heart of education policy, the vocational-academic divide. This divide, which has been stringently reinforced by the current government in its treatment of the further education sector, its deep preference for ‘traditional education’, and the language of deficit and failure, has been accepted by the Labour party. Every time the phrase, ‘the forgotten 50 per cent’, passes a shadow minister’s lips or finds its way into print, the value of ‘vocational’ education is further undermined.

The extent of the influence of this false divide can be felt in the tension within Labour’s education policy, which is calling simultaneously for stability and the maintenance of Goveian academic rigour, at the same time as rallying being a rejuvenated vocational sector. It is very difficult to do both. As long as ‘academic’ achievement remains the priority of the education system, ‘vocational’ education will continue to be regarded as a route B, a solution for the youth unemployed, an option for the ‘forgotten 50 per cent.’

This preference for the academic is detectable even in the policies designed to improve the reputation of vocational education. Renaming vocational qualifications ‘degrees’ and ‘baccalaureates’ is indicative of the fact that vocational qualifications are only regarded as valuable by policymakers in view of their perceived comparability to their academic counterparts. This ‘separate but equal’ approach to equality risks simply rebranding and embedding existing inequalities in the system.

If Labour is to truly create a ‘one nation’ education system then it must be more radical in its thinking on vocational education. It must not renounce democratic responsibility, if the party wins power in 2015, for the sake of stability and security. The false divide at the heart of the education system must be broken down. As any teacher, lawyer, doctor, or architect will testify, vocational skills and academic knowledge are not neatly divisible we should not seek to recreate the vocational in the image of the academic, but instead recognise that the distinction is unhelpful.

Equality between pathways should not be sought in their comparability but in their diversity. Equality should be realised in a variety of educational pathways, each valuable in their own right, reflecting an age where each individual can seek his or her own path. This does not mean we should undermine the strength of our current academic pathways, nor lower the expectations on students regarding core skills.

However, we must desist from thinking of two educational systems, the much praised dual-system approach of Switzerland, Austria, and Germany is a system which has been built within a specific cultural framework to meet specific historical needs. Our policies must reflect our culture and our context. That context calls for a diverse educational offer which offers genuine choice and clear pathways to all students.

To meet this demand, Labour should root its education policy in a commitment to one unified education system, with a one system of funding and one system of qualifications for all education institutions, regulated and monitored in the same manner. This does not mean creating qualifications which are equal by comparison, but equal in value. Only when we have a unified education sector which values a broad range of skills, skills which are in demand from employers, where students are offered genuine choice will we create a one national education system which promotes parity of esteem in education as well as equality more broadly.

Labour should abandon its message of vocational education for the ‘forgotten 50 per cent’ and start talking about one nation education for all.

This post originally appeared progressonline.org.uk

Michael Gove needs a clumsier approach

The case against performance related pay has now been made.  While, the case will go unheeded, and it is doubtful that greater energy or coherence would have changed that fact, it does serve to illuminate the many levels on which the policy is misguided. More important than the variety of criticisms that can, and have, been directed at the policy however, is the insight it gives us into the mistaken principals that underlie the whole educational reform programme of the Coalition. The extent of the problem of using performance related pay for teachers is evident.

  • As a teacher, it is insulting, misguided and shows a lack of appreciation of professional motivations and relationships.
  • Academically, the research suggests that the effectiveness of such a system is doubtful, certainly limited and potentially negative.
  • From a governance perspective, the practicality issues of performance related pay for teachers are pervasive; what should we measure? Who should measure it?
  • In terms of governing, it has been crudely implemented and so is already acting as a divisive force between educators and policy makers at a time when great collaboration is needed.

On top of these issues there are questions around the unintended consequences of introducing the forces of individual competition into the education system, will top teachers abandon struggling schools? Will monetary incentives encourage gaming the system to the detriment of education? What is certain is that the questions surrounding the utility of performance related pay are weighing heavily on its successful implementation. Yet, while all of these criticisms are valid, they fail to identify the issue at the heart of the policy and the broader overhaul of the education system. The pursuit of performance related pay for teachers is symptomatic of an overreliance on individualism as a source of power for change. Educational improvement is a complex problem, that is to say, it is interminable; it can’t be solved, merely addressed, it is unpredictable; cause and consequence are difficult to ascertain, and it is continually evolving. Complex problems, such as educational improvement, cannot be addressed with elegant solutions; there is no perfect solution, no system or incentive that will solve the problem alone. Instead, solutions must draw on a range of power sources to address the problem effectively. They must draw on the power of hierarchical structures, they must incentivise and empower individuals and give them room to innovate and they must encourage collaboration, empathy and collective experience. The problem with the coalition’s education reforms is that they are rooted in individualistic competition at the expense of collaboration. Performance related pay is merely the most recent and most overt manifestation of the coalition’s belief that individualistic competition is the most effective source of power. Performance related pay, like encouraging schools to compete, fails to acknowledge the benefits of schools and teachers working together, of educators cultivating collective intelligence and investing in a community of fate that is built on empathy and experience. So while others are creating collaborative solutions to the problem of education improvement, the coalition is doing its best to discourage them. Performance related pay then, is not simply a misguided policy, it is symptomatic of a misunderstanding at the heart of coalition policy and a misdiagnosis of the nature of the problem of educational improvement itself. The complex problem of educational improvement requires a clumsier  approach, one which draws on the power of hierarchy and the responsibility and drive of individuals but also encourages solidarity and values collaboration. This post was originally posted at Labour Teachers