Out of the crop of youngsters receiving their GCSE results this morning will emerge the inevitable stories of the over-achievers: the super-brainy kids who get 17 A*s, the 12-year-old with the highest mark in the country for maths. Nowhere in the coverage, however, will we see the child whose results paper is not such a constellation but instead a list of Ds and Es.
What future lies ahead for these 16-year-olds? If the door to A-levels and university is closed to them, then there are vocational courses and thousands of apprenticeship places. But a growing number will find themselves shunted into a siding labelled Neet – not in education, employment or training – a group which is now estimated to number 1.09 million.
It cannot be a happy place, to be not only out of work and education, but also to be bracketed in this way. Unhappier still, then, to be accused by a minister of lacking the “grit” to get off their backsides and find work. It is unfortunate that the minister in question is Nick Hurd, the son of a former foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, and a fourth generation MP and an Old Etonian. Mr Hurd junior received a hammering on Twitter for his remarks. If his Conservative colleague Greg Clark, the Treasury minister who is the son of a milkman from Middlesbrough, had said the same thing, the scope for Twitter’s opprobrium would be drastically reduced. Mr Hurd is an easy target because of the school he went to.
Does Mr Hurd even know what grit is, beyond the brick dust that flies during the Wall Game? Perhaps Mr Clark would not accuse today’s youngsters of lacking “grit” because he knows what it takes to rise from a humble background to the heart of government, rather than naturally blending in to the world of Whitehall?
Mr Hurd can do nothing about the family he was born into. We should not hold his upbringing against him. But just as it is not his fault which school he went to, it is not the fault of a typical young “Neet” that they are out of work, or have failed to get good enough grades to do A-levels or go to university. When a child is not a straight-As student, or does not excel in another way, say at sport or music, it is too easy to lack the confidence to argue their way into a job.
This is partly the fault of teachers focusing too much attention on those predicted Cs or above at GCSE, to improve a school’s position in the league table, and allowing the stragglers to slip down the grades. But it is also the fault of an education system for championing the high-flyers while ignoring the growing group of youngsters destined to become Neets. We cannot all achieve A*s, but to get Ds and Es at GCSE should not be a mark of future failure. These children will have other skills and talents that can be coaxed out of them.
It is Mr Hurd’s choice of the word “grit” which is so offensive, of course. To say that a person lacks grit suggests they are missing a gumption gene, that they are pathologically incapable of work or learning, which is just not true. Far from lacking grit, it takes sheer guts to want to continue in education when your school thinks you’re not good enough, just as it takes courage to carry on looking for work when you’re getting knockbacks from employers because your CV isn’t right and you mumble and sit with shoulders slumped in interviews.
No, it is not grit that these youngsters lack, but prospects. There may be jobs and apprenticeships out there, but many are short term, on zero-hours contracts. With the decline in manufacturing has come the rise in semi-skilled, high-turnover work which offers little bedrock for a career.
If the outlook is bad for Neets, the situation for today’s university graduates is also grim – one in 10 fails to find a job within six months of graduating, and for those who do find work, many are behind a bar or in other posts which do not require a graduate’s nous. The tragic case of 21-year-old Merrill Lynch intern Moritz Erhardt has exposed a culture of punishing hours for those trying to compete for lucrative City jobs. Across the spectrum, the picture is bleak. Now there are signs of a property price boom; this is pushing a first home for young people further out of their grasp.
It would be fanciful to suggest an easy solution to improve an entire generation’s prospects, but there is a way to help under-achievers – and this is where Mr Hurd and I would agree. Schools should teach “soft skills” such as confidence-building as part of the national curriculum, to give any child a fighting chance. At Eton, they don’t need to tell pupils to hold their heads high – it just happens. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us don’t possess the wherewithal, the skills, the grit, to succeed – we just need to be told we can do it. If the child of a foreign secretary can make it to the top of government, so can the child of a milkman from Middlesbrough.