'Not investing in skills is a false economy'

New Learning and Work Institute data exposes stark divides in education and job opportunities, writes Stephen Evans

Stephen Evans

The 5% club is a membership organisation of employers committed to increasing the number of “earn and learn” skills training opportunities, including apprenticeships

Brexit is still dominating the headlines and seems, at times, never-ending. Without downplaying its importance, the government must redouble its efforts to tackle the “burning injustices” the prime minister talked about when she took office.

Improving education and employment opportunities for young people is undoubtedly one of those. That’s why the Learning and Work Institute established a Youth Commission this summer. Over the next year it will examine the challenges and propose ways for all young people to get a fair chance in life.

The picture for England as a whole has been written about a lot. Our Youth Commission launch report showed that young people are spending longer in education than previous generations, which is essential for today’s society and economy, and that employment rates are overall high by historic and international standards.

But it also showed inequalities in opportunities and highlighted five big challenges the Youth Commission will be focusing on: better supporting young people not in education, employment or opportunity; improving literacy and numeracy skills; raising attainment at level 3; more flexible higher education options throughout life; and boosting access to and quality of work.

Our latest Youth Commission report looks at how education and employment opportunities vary across 150 local authorities in England. It brings together data on seven measures to produce a Youth Opportunity Index.

The results reflect a combination of differences in local economies, demographics, national policies and local services. It gives a measure of relative education and employment outcomes for young people living in a particular local authority area, rather than where they grew up. This is important as it links to decisions young people make such as, for example, moving to areas of higher opportunity. Nonetheless, we should surely be aiming for all young people – wherever they grow up or move to live – to have good opportunities for education and work.

London calling?

Sutton is the number one ranked area, and London’s boroughs fill 10 of the top 20 spots in the index. This is fuelled by the dramatic improvements in London’s education system over recent decades. Beyond this, though, there is no simple north-south divide – instead the variations within regions are bigger than those between regions. Areas of higher deprivation do tend to have lower education and employment outcomes for young people. But this is not universally true, with a number of more deprived London boroughs and areas like Oldham bucking the trend.

The power of the Youth Opportunity Index is also in digging down below the headlines. For example, take-up of apprenticeships tends to be higher in areas that score less well on some of the education measures. This highlights the power of apprenticeships to boost social justice, but also the need to increase take-up in all areas so that apprenticeships are an option for all young people.

The index also contains new data on underemployment. This helps to highlight areas where employment might be high, but where young people cannot get the hours they want and may be struggling to make ends meet or take the next step on the career ladder.

What next?

I think the Youth Opportunity Index points to three things.

The first is that the challenges vary across England. I hope the data we’ve produced will help to focus effort – it probably chimes with what many local areas are thinking. In some there seems to be a drop off in relative performance between GCSE level, A-level equivalent and higher education: how can we help young people progress on to higher education where this would benefit them? In other areas, employment is relatively low (how can we better link young people with work opportunities?) and elsewhere underemployment is a bigger challenge.

The second is to make the case for more investment in education and employment services for young people – this is about further education, but also the post-18 education funding review, as well as replacement of European Social Funds, support through Jobcentre Plus and employment programmes, and local authority services. These are investments. Not investing is simply a false economy.

The third is to also focus attention on how we invest. Young people in some areas have better opportunities than some in otherwise similar areas. What can we learn from those areas doing particularly well? How can we spread best practice?

There is no perfect way to measure education and employment opportunities. The Youth Opportunity Index does not look at all the factors that drive outcomes. But it does provide a snapshot of relative opportunity for young people across England.

You can view all the data on our website – I hope it starts a debate.

Stephen Evans is chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute


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