“All I want for my children is health and happiness” is probably over-used by parents, but it’s not a bad ambition. It feels a lot more positive and optimistic than calls for young people to have “resilience and character”, and I’ve yet to meet parents who yearn for their off-spring to have so-called "employability skills". My ambition goes much further. What I want is for my children, and other people's children, to have agency; to enter adulthood with ambition, with expectation, with hope and with the belief that their actions, both individually and collectively, will be able to make our world a better place to live in. That feels more satisfying than simply helping young people to get ready for all of the woes society will heap on them.
Put another way, I want young people to enter adulthood ready and willing to be active and engaged citizens. It’s surely not a lot to ask that the education system, parents and our culture try to achieve that? Given the turmoil and turbulence of our politics at the moment, it can look like a distant dream at times but that should only make us all work harder to achieve it. We live in a participative democracy, but we know that household income, socioeconomic status and educational achievement levels all heavily influence engagement in political processes. The result is that some groups in our society have less of a voice, less influence and feel less in control of their futures.
Background: Half of young people feel unprepared for work
Quick read: AoC joins the fight for votes at 16
Colleges can play an important role in all of this. They support around 650,000 young people every year in that critical phase of education and life, from 16 to 19 years of age. It’s when many young people form so many of their views and outlooks on life, when they seek answers to big questions and begin to engage in our political system. Their education at this stage, in its widest sense, can make a big difference to how engaged they will be for years to come, if not for life.
It’s why we decided last year, at the Association of Colleges, to support the votes at 16 campaign. What better way to help develop active citizens than to enfranchise them alongside their critical education years? Our thinking was that colleges would be able to help young people become informed, critical and astute voters, who were able to consider all the political party offerings and manifesto commitments. I’d still like to see it happen.
But becoming an active citizen is much more than simply voting. Young people deserve a properly funded programme of enrichment activities to complement their education and training. Sadly, the severe cuts to college funding over the past decade have seen opportunities like these diminish or even disappear. More worryingly, there seems to be little appetite from policymakers and politicians to reverse that trend. That feels very shortsighted and ill-informed to me.
Enrichment is all too often seen as a nice-to-have, rather than an essential part of an education. We need to challenge that. Even if resilience, character and employability are the things that we want for our young people. The very best way to achieve that is through a wide range of extracurricular activities including sport, drama, music, social action, overseas study trips, day trips volunteering, student politics, and the like. A list which I am sure looks very familiar to most middle-class parents with the disposable income to pay for it themselves.
The reality, of course, is that many parents cannot afford these sorts of activities on their own. That means hundreds of thousands of young people missing out on what should be viewed as a central part of a full education. They are not nice-to-haves. In fact, they are the breeding ground for all of the attributes we all want to see in young adults – confidence, self-esteem, team-working, sense of purpose, hard work, problem-solving and so on. My 18-year-old yesterday described the home-sickness that some of her friends were experiencing at university this month and reflected that her student exchange in France had "cured her" of that (and helped her French language skills, of course).
My hope is that as the funding for 16 to 19 education starts to rise, that enrichment will be a priority again. To persuade politicians and policymakers, we will need to show the evidence of how this meets their priorities, including resilience, character and employability skills. If widening participation in higher education is worth around £1 billion of investment, then surely widening the enrichment of the lives of young people is worth more money than it gets now. Perhaps investing in student enrichment might even be the best way to widen participation in higher education. Now there’s a thought.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges