I am quite happy to concede that they have not been working perfectly, but I have to tell the House that the Government’s proposals will make things worse, not better.
Many industries—not just the professions involving solicitors, doctors and so on—are very much family affairs, in which sons and daughters follow fathers and mothers, aunts and uncles and grandparents into the workplace. Before I worked for a rail union, which was very much a family affair, I had no idea about the range of jobs available in that industry. How does a young person without connections find out about such jobs, and how do they ensure that they have the right skills to apply for them when they do find out about them?
Of course, the advice that young people receive has to be good. I remember a member of my staff taking a young person to meet a careers officer before the Connexions service was established. Again, I am not saying that Connexions was perfect. That young women wanted to become a vet, but the careers adviser very kindly told her about how to become a veterinary nurse. That was disgraceful. We need to be ambitious for young people. I worked with two young people who were told that they were too stupid to go to university. One of them now has her master’s degree, and is a head of department in a sixth-form college. The other has a degree in Russian and splits his time between Russia and Korea. A computer programme will not inspire young people. It will not be ambitious for them, and it will not stretch them. It will not build their confidence, or give them the support that they need if they are to reach their full potential.
What if a young person has learning difficulties or physical disabilities? I want to talk about Thomas, whose mum and gran came to see me in my surgery. Thomas had not been diagnosed with a disability and there was a threat to take his mum to court because he would not attend school. Eventually, through our intervention, Thomas was diagnosed with an autism-related condition. He would not leave home, go to school or do anything else. He had a Connexions adviser, however, who regularly came to the house at the same time each week—the sort of thing that a young person with an autism-related condition needs. By using the available funding, the adviser was able to take Thomas out to the library and various other activities, and to give him experience of work programmes. Thomas’s life was transformed, but his mum and gran are now absolutely desperate about what will happen to him.
Connexions was not just about careers advice. Funding was made available to support young people like Thomas or others who for other reasons were not making a good transfer to further education or work. There was funding for programmes that provided support, training and education for young people, including a summer programme for 16-year-olds from the New Opportunities Fund. An activity agreement provided an allowance in return for fulfilling an agreed action plan and funding was provided to purchase experiential learning opportunities. There was a learning agreement aimed at engaging local employers and increasing the number of young people in jobs with training. The programme offered financial incentives to employers and young people, in combination with suitably brokered learning provision.
In Wigan there was a range of bespoke projects aimed at the most vulnerable young people in the borough—including teenage pregnancy courses and a video production course for young offenders. The re-engage project built on the success of the activity agreement pilot by securing a discretionary fund for young people living in Wigan’s most deprived neighbourhoods. That also funded summer projects, in partnership with the youth service, to keep school leavers engaged. An apprenticeship pathways project was delivered by Wigan college and local learning providers, which looked at new ways of engaging and motivating closer to the labour market young people who were struggling to find opportunities. Wigan council’s supported employment team was funded to assist young people with learning difficulties in accessing work opportunities. The council delivered a successful apprenticeship programme, recruiting young people and supporting them through trained mentors. In partnership with local learning providers and colleges, it successfully delivered a range of activities to engage and motivate NEET and potentially NEET clients—including the clearing house, taster sessions, locality-based summer programmes and careers events.
What happened as a result of all that support and all those programmes? Youth unemployment fell by 40% from 1997 to the start of the global financial crisis, and more than half the young people on jobseeker’s allowance were off it within three months. But now it is all gone.
Most young people from advantaged backgrounds will make the transition from school to employment, probably via university, with few problems, but surely we have a duty to support young people who, through no fault of their own, will find that transition difficult or impossible. We owe it to young people to help them fulfil their potential. We owe it to them to give them the best possible support and advice from trained and qualified advisers. I hope that the Government will do another U-turn and save either the Connexions service or the careers service—at least something that will be valuable to young people. And while they are at it, I hope that they will save the youth service, too.