The real victims of the recession

30th October 2009 at 00:00
Young people are set to be the big losers in the recession

The spectre of mass youth unemployment has loomed large in recent newspaper headlines. The UK jobless figure for 18 to 24 year olds hovers just below 1 million and, in Scotland, there has been a 75 per cent increase in the number of young people claiming Jobseekers Allowance, in only two years. Governments may bail out banks, but who will save the real victims of this recession?

Those who taught in the 1980s will remember vividly the demoralising impact in schools of the unemployment of that decade. I recall a class of boys, a "vocational class" from pre-Standard grade days, all of whom went straight from school to dole queue.

Unfortunately, the consequences of the endemic pockets of poverty created by Thatcher's greedy Britain continue to be evident in schools today. Despite the declared intentions of New Labour, the rich are richer and the poor are poorer.

It is a disgrace that, in 2009, poverty, relative and absolute, remains the single biggest barrier to educational achievement for all.

Thankfully, it's not a universal truth that pupils from poor backgrounds will be failed by the system, but the broad sweep of the statistics is clear: pupils from the 15 per cent most deprived areas in Scotland have higher absence rates, poorer health, are excluded more often, have lower levels of attainment, are more likely to leave school without any qualifications - and are most likely to join that growing cohort of the unemployed.

Young people from this background inhabit a dangerously desperate terrain where they are prey to attack from poverty's fellow travellers: violence, substance abuse, crime - as well as loss of hope and aspiration. "Getting it right" for them has to be priority.

If it was as simple as declaring the intent, of course, the problem would have been solved several times over as there has been considerable effort and focus by various agencies, including local and national government, over the past decade in particular. But in a time of economic restraint, there is a very real concern that those at the margins, who will suffer most from the impact of recession, might find themselves further marginalised in terms of the services they need.

Working with fractured young people can be a labour-intensive process - but if one-to-one intervention is the only way to achieve progress, then it needs to be provided.

Glasgow City Council, for example, has had success with its nurture-class programme - but it's a costly provision. If, however, Glasgow is ever to break the city's link with poverty and underachievement (four of the five most deprived areas in Scotland are in Glasgow), it is the kind of programme that needs to be supported by the city and by others, such as the Scottish Government.

Education can make a difference. It does offer a potential route out of the cycle of poverty. A Save the ChildrenGlasgow University study in 2007 cited the crucial role that schools play in supporting impoverished children. In the same year, the Child Poverty Action Group's Chicken and Egg report highlighted the significant role of education in reducing disadvantage.

That is not to suggest education alone can solve the ills of society. All agencies need to be involved in meeting the needs of the most vulnerable young people with whom we work, and thankfully multi-agency working is more effective now than ever. The structural causes of poverty are beyond the reach of nurseries, schools and colleges. But we can and do make a difference for individuals.

Ten years ago, the EIS published Poverty and Education: Breaking Down the Barriers. At the end of this month, we are holding a seminar to review what progress has been made. There will have been some but clearly a long road still lies ahead.

Larry Flanagan is education convener of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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