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My Lords, I warmly welcome the debate initiated by my noble friend Lord Monks on the grounds of my being an early school leaver at 15 years of age, who started off in the vocational line, and also subsequently as a deputy head teacher responsible for what we damagingly refer to as “Christmas leavers”. These were young people who were in school but were not going to university, damaging their self-esteem in the process. Compared with their contemporaries in full-time higher education, these young people in the vocational scheme had a lack of structured support and pastoral care. Consequently, the challenges facing them were considerable. They faced these challenges largely alone. The best advice matching their skills and abilities was absent.
Such individuals—and the poorer ones in higher education—are still coming off worst in Scotland. A recent study by Edinburgh University’s Centre for Research in Education, Inclusion and Diversity concluded that only students from relatively high-income homes enjoy consistent, superior benefits from the Scottish education system. It has seen a transfer from low-income to high-income households. It adds that the Scottish system of higher education does not have the egalitarian, progressive effects that are commonly claimed for it.
It is important to debunk these notions. The bias against poorer individuals and those not in higher education is even more skewed. If there is an opportune time to reappraise this bias it is now. Youth unemployment in the country is greater than 17%; there are almost 900,000 young people still not in work.
The age of austerity is giving way to the age of secular stagnation. The characteristics of this are high unemployment, increasing poverty, wage stagnation and debt burdens. As we have seen this week with this Government, debt burdens do not decrease. The buzzword in the markets, the IMF, the World Bank and other global institutions is
“investment”. We need an economic system that offers hope, not despair, and one that serves the interests of everyone.
We have cheated our children through lack of public investment and a failure to provide jobs. The policy for young people has failed. My noble friend Lord Monks referred to the document, Sense and Instability, produced by the City and Guilds. That looked at the record for the past 30 years. He quoted a number of points, not least the 61 Secretaries of State. The policy has been flipped between departments or shared with multiple departments 10 times since 1980.
Given this catalogue of failure, we can conclude only that a single youth policy agenda across government departments is necessary. Devolution to local level, where the needs fit the training, is very important, because of the huge gap in skills. That way we could encourage diverse, high-quality routes into work. Is it not time to commit to a youth guarantee to fill that skills gap—a guarantee that gives high-quality training placement or a paid job? My noble friend Lady Taylor said that such a youth guarantee should establish parity of esteem between vocational education and the academic route.
We must recognise that the UK economic has been damaged since the financial crisis in 2008. The Institute for Public Policy Research concluded recently that full economic recovery will not solve the youth unemployment problem. The link between youth unemployment and economic growth, between youth unemployment and GDP, is broken—not least in the striking mismatch between what people are training for and the types of job available.
Without radical change by the Government focusing exclusively on a coherent youth policy and a decentralisation of the responsibility for skills development to local level, where the needs of availability of young people with the required skills coalesce, and without the parity of esteem between vocational and academic education, we shall simply repeat the mistakes of the past. The next generation’s economic, social and life-enhancing prospects are too important to allow such an opportunity to change course. We cannot allow that to happen by default.
This debate has been timely and crucially relevant. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Monks for instigating it.