Onward and upward with the leavers of '94

The feel-good factor is back, or perhaps it never went away. Young people, according to two new surveys (page 5), take a generally optimistic view of their prospects, and in the brief period since leaving school they have kept, or had born anew, feelings of gratitude and friendliness towards their former teachers. Ministers will be happy about these findings from the revamped Scottish School Leavers' Survey. In the positive nature of the replies, they will see vindication of their record in office, which extends back almost as long as these young people have been alive.

Among 1994 leavers the majority last year expected to be in either a full-time job or full-time education in the spring of this year. Clearly, we are not dealing with a generation imbued with the values of Trainspotting.

The general election will show whether first-time voters give the Government credit for their optimism. On the evidence of opinion surveys, it is unlikely. Schools and parents come in for more praise than ministers, especially Conservative ones. Young people dissociate evaluation of their own prospects from their views about the state of society in general. The trend towards extended education and disbelief in endemic unemployment, at least as it might affect them, are less likely to influence voting patterns than the sight of beggars and Big Issue sellers on the streets.

The feel-good factor probably never deserted the majority of young people, even at the nadir of youth unemployment. Fortunately for the future of society, it is in the nature of young people to be optimistic. The ups and down of the economy, the state of the housing market, the dread of negative equity - these are not concerns for many 18-year-olds.

Most people of that age realise that the choice is between a full-time job, preferably with prospects of training and promotion, or full-time education. The correlation between employment opportunities and increased staying-on rates is not exact. More and more young people realise, having been repeatedly told by parents and teachers, that qualifications are the route to job prospects. Staying-on becomes ingrained as one generation of teenagers follows another, just as the fact that the "Robbins generation" of university graduates became parents of teenagers was partly responsible for the steep rise in student numbers. Expectations are the prompt to behaviour patterns.

The numbers taking Highers, vocational qualifications and university degrees are still likely to increase for years ahead. Any changes in student maintenance following the Dearing review will not fundamentally alter the trend. The national economy will have to adjust to the social imperative, as indeed it ought to, not only to match international competitors but in response to the Government's own training targets. The combination of optimism and realism which is attested to in the survey of leavers will also lead a majority of future teenagers to aim high.

The problems come among the one in eight of 19-year-olds who remain under-educated and unemployed. They are set to become increasingly detached from their more successful and luckier peers. They are the underclass of western society, perhaps dangerous, more likely disaffected and disillusioned.

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