Great expectations

[This article was published in the latest edition of Anticipations, the Young Fabians’ quarterly magazine]

There is no single definitive explanation for last summer’s riots across cities in England. But the fact that hundreds of children – 720 of those in court are aged 10 and 17-years-old-  took part should make us question why and how.

The riots did not occur in isolation to what is happening in wider society, where many communities are beginning to feel the effects of the 2008 recession. Young people from these communities face a bleak future, not helped by historically low levels of social mobility, meaning they are unlikely to escape the penury of their parents. It is striking that 73% of those charged with riot-related offences are under 25, according to justice ministry statistics published in February. And according to the Guardian newspaper’s data on the first 1,100 riot-related cases, 41% of suspects lived in the most deprived places in Britain, while 66% of all suspects live in areas that got poorer between 2007 and 2010.

Amid the chaos of burning cars, angry teenagers and riot police in Hackney last August, a local youth worker explained why he thought young people were rioting that night: “It’s a poor thing. This is young black [kids] who have had enough. The poor white working class kids are out there as well. They are not calling for a change in the government. It is the whole society they are against.”

Is there any justification for such a bleak response?

Just over a million under 25-year-olds are unemployed. Young people heading to university this autumn will pay around £27,000 for a three-year degree. On top of this some universities still struggle to attract poorer students; last year the Office for Fair Access found that a quarter of all universities missed targets to widen access.

For young people wanting to pursue a professional career, money is everything. Careers such as the law and even journalism, require postgraduate study which can cost anywhere between £7K and £16K. Many jobs demand the completion of unpaid internships, and where such work experience lasts longer than a few weeks, it is the poorest, already woefully underrepresented in many professions, who will suffer.

Before even reaching this stage, many young people experience the lottery of state education. Those who draw the short straw face not only years of poor teaching, but a serious lack of guidance and support about life after the age of 16.  This manifests itself in numerous ways. Last year, in a Confederation of British Industry survey, 44% of employers said they had had to invest in remedial training for school leavers, 35% said young people lacked basic numeracy skills and 55% complained about poor self-management skills. Students who want to attend university are also short-changed. Following last year’s A-level results, comprehensive schools were criticised for encouraging students to study less traditional subjects. This would not matter so much if alternative courses led to more employment opportunities, but in the current climate this is unlikely.

The dearth of proper guidance for young people will get worse now the government has scrapped the ring-fence for teen services such as Connexions. Last winter, I met up with staff and young people at the Crib, a much-needed youth centre in east London, where rioting was particularly violent. The Crib tries to offer extra tuition and careers guidance for disadvantaged children in the local area, but has been forced to sack 12 members of staff since the council dramatically scaled back funding.

In the wake of the rioting last summer, I spent hours chatting to Yohanes Scarlett, a bright and engaged 20-year-old student from Ladbrook Grove, about possible solutions to the problems affecting young people in Britain, and why some of his friends felt they had to riot. You can my read more of my interview with him here: http://www.newint.org/features/web-exclusive/2011/09/13/riots-uk-police-politics/

On the issue of employment, Yohanes says there should be a working class equivalent to the middle-class networks that enable privileged young people to excel. “Youth clubs need to become more of an opportunity – not just there to pass time and keep young people off the streets,” he says. “There is only so much table tennis and snooker you can play.

“[Why not] have entrepreneurs coming in and saying, ‘OK I will take some people from this area because I grew up here and I will teach them something.’ People would be more likely to pay attention there and in schools if they felt there was actually light at the end of the tunnel.”

But even if young people get the right training and skills to equip them for either university or post-16 employment, where are the jobs to apply for?

While there are many exemplary apprenticeships on offer, these are oversubscribed. Just 35% of all young people choose to go to university, yet the emphasis in schools is still too focused on academic options. Those who do not want to go to university need more options for long-term quality employment. There is a desperate need for new and innovative career choices.

I met 18-year-old Lakshmi while researching my pamphlet on eco-activists in London. Lakshmi has a qualification in beekeeping and helps run the Golden Company, a social enterprise offering advice and training to urban beekeepers. She says: “The majority of graduates that have just come out of university can’t find jobs. It is really difficult. The best option now for young people is to simply to do stuff like apprenticeships, training programmes and work your way up.”

In many ways, Lakshmi is right. There should certainly be better and more targeted support for academically bright children from poorer backgrounds to obtain places at the best universities; but there must also be alternative opportunities for the rest. To avoid a lost generation the government must provide more than just free schools. “Education, education, education” alone failed to keep children from looting last summer. With youth unemployment rocketing, new policy must combine good education, training and quality employment opportunities.

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