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'Don’t pigeon-hole our young people - give them space to spread their wings'

Chris Jones, Chief Executive of the City & Guilds Group, writes:

They say that prior to the 1950s, teenagers simply didn’t exist. You were either a child or an adult. But then, as the Second World War drew to a close and Elvis came on the scene, a new term to describe those in-between years was coined.

In this country, that development coincided with the Butler Act in 1944, which raised the school leaving age from 14 to 15, an age we now consider far too young to be out of full time formal education.

Prior to 1944, many young people would have been preparing for the working world; searching for job opportunities, going to interviews, and taking their first steps onto the career ladder.

Of course you can’t compare then and now. And I don’t subscribe to the school of thought that harks back to the ‘good old days,’ complaining that the youth of today don’t know how good they’ve got it. Modern teenagers are an incredibly hardworking bunch.

Still, there’s a question of whether we have gone too far in the opposite direction. Since the Butler Act, this country has moved further and further away from the idea of teenagers being given the opportunity to learn about the world of work or learn on the job. In fact, after the Act was introduced, a tripartite system was established, including technical schools, grammar schools and secondary moderns. Only a few technical schools were set up, so academia became the priority. Since then, academic success and university have been hailed as the ultimate goal. 

Yet as Dragons Den star Theo Paphitis reminded the BCC Conference last week, there are growing questions over this approach. “The world has changed,” he commented. “You won’t be entitled to a highly-paid job just because you went to university. Skills are crucial now.”

Paphitis wasn’t wrong. Currently, around one million young people are without jobs or any hope of getting one. Ensuring we equip them with the skills employers need is fundamental to changing this. 

Yet the current system consistently fails to prepare young people for work. As our recent research revealed, 47 per cent of employers don’t think that the current education system meets the needs of their business. To quote skills minister Matt Hancock last week, education has been ‘divorced from the reality of real work’ for far too long. Well, let’s end this conscious uncoupling. 

The time has come to refocus the debate about what we offer 14-year-olds, and examine the opportunities we are giving them to explore vocational routes. 

I’m not for one minute advocating that 14-year-olds who would rather be anywhere but school should be able to leave, just like that, and go straight into work. 

I’m saying let’s give today’s teenagers the choice they deserve. At 14 they should have the opportunity to experience different options, to find out what suits them. They should be able to take a vocationally-oriented programme, just as they can take GCSEs. And crucially, they should be able to move easily between academic and vocational pathways. Young people shouldn’t be pigeon-holed – but given the choice, opportunity, advice and information to keep their options open.

After all, there’s no such thing as a job for life any more. Sure, people specialise in a certain areas. But if someone was really unhappy in their career, would we just tell them to keep at it until they retire? Or would we tell them to explore their options and find a career that’s right for them, and makes them happy?

That’s why I’m delighted that the City & Guilds Group is a key partner for the Career Colleges Trust in its important mission to build a new educational landscape for 14 to 19 year olds. Career Colleges are absolutely the right approach. Firstly, they emphasise engagement with local employers and draw on the expertise of industry experts, bridging the gap between education and employment. And of course, they give young people an unrivalled chance to dip their toes into vocational routes before they get locked in to one path or another.

A great deal has changed since the dawn of ‘the teenager’ many decades ago, but the story stays the same. Young people are still grappling with the same old issues. What do I want to do with my life? How will I get there? Where will my career take me? Will I succeed?

It is our responsibility to offer them the chance to find the answers to those questions, and not close any doors when they are trying to push them open. If we don’t, we’ll have failed them.

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