How flaws in post-16 policy damage our young people

Politicians' short-termism in both funding and policy decisions for FE lets learners down, warns Stephen Evans

Stephen Evans

FE policy: Flaws in post-16 policy are damaging our learners, warns Stephen Evans, of the Learning and Work Institute

Too many of England’s young people are being let down by gaps in education and employment support. We need urgent action so that every young person gets a fair chance in life.

Learning and Work Institute’s Youth Commission is looking at how to improve education and employment opportunities for England’s 6 million 16- to 24-year-olds. So far we’ve published reports setting out how education and career prospects for young people compare to other countries and vary across England, as well as looking at the big economic and social changes ahead that we need to prepare young people for.


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Our latest report considers how current and planned policy stack up against these challenges and identifies where we need to do better. The overall picture is of a complex and often fragmented system subject to short-term funding and constant chop and change. We lack an overall ambition for what we’re trying to achieve and that creates gaps and flaws in policy.

A disjoint between employment and skills policy

Let’s consider literacy and numeracy. Both are undeniably essential for both life and work, but Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development data shows that England’s young people have poorer basic skills than older people – something that is true only for us and the US – and that we lag behind many other countries.

How is policy tackling this? The condition of funding, requiring young people to continue studying literacy and numeracy until age 18 if they do not have a level 2 qualification in them, has led to a quadrupling of the proportion of young people gaining these skills after age 16. But it has created a retake treadmill for some, and we need to find ways to make the policy work better.

There’s also a gap in support for 18- to 24-year-olds who are out of work. We estimate that fewer than one in two of this age group who are out of work and need to improve their literacy or numeracy are referred by Jobcentre Plus to do so. This represents a disjoint between employment and skills policy that stores up problems for the future, risking contributing to a revolving door between unemployment and short-term, low-paid work.

We also found that the proportion of 16- to 17-year-olds working alongside their studies has halved over recent decades. This is a structural shift as participation in education for this age group has risen, including as a result of raising the education participation age. It’s important that young people can focus on their studies and get the best grades possible. But it means that when they move into work, they are less likely to have had experience of employment. This raises the importance of work experience, as well as supporting employers to help young people make the transition into the workplace.

Fragmented and under-funded

Meanwhile, 50,000 16- to 17-year-olds are not in education, employment or training. They are not eligible for benefits and hence often miss out on Jobcentre Plus support. There are lots of projects and programmes to re-engage Neets, but they are too often fragmented and under-funded. The status of one half of this group is recorded as unknown. Not only are we not successfully re-engaging them, we don’t even know what they’re doing.

The sharp cuts to local authority budgets since 2010 haven’t helped, leaving them limited in what they’re able to do. All of this makes the 30,000 fall in apprenticeships for 16- to 18-year-olds since the introduction of the levy and other reforms look even more serious. We’ve argued that apprenticeships for this age group should be funded from the education budget, as other education options are, to help reverse this decline.

These are all illustrations of wider flaws. In too many areas, progress improving education and employment outcomes for young people has stalled. Doing better is partly about investment. But it’s also about policy and delivery.

There’s much to be proud of in our education and employment services, but so much more we can do. The next phase of our Youth Commission will be trying to develop solutions. The next government must make this a priority.

Stephen Evans is chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute

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