Remember the importance of the skills they don't teach you at school

'I was taught to fire a Bren gun. I've never had to fire a light machine-gun, but the principle is valid'
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The Independent Online

Should Labour be worried about élitism or about the truly poor? If you are worried about the degree of inequality in our society - and surveys repeatedly show that the British people are - then both should be a concern. But in human terms the poverty of the bottom 15 per cent of our population is surely a more pressing issue than the privileges of the top 1 per cent - all the more in that many of our poor are children. That is a profoundly worrying fact in itself; but it is all the more alarming because the path to adult poverty seems to start early: children who are brought up poor are the most likely to remain so throughout their lives.

Should Labour be worried about élitism or about the truly poor? If you are worried about the degree of inequality in our society - and surveys repeatedly show that the British people are - then both should be a concern. But in human terms the poverty of the bottom 15 per cent of our population is surely a more pressing issue than the privileges of the top 1 per cent - all the more in that many of our poor are children. That is a profoundly worrying fact in itself; but it is all the more alarming because the path to adult poverty seems to start early: children who are brought up poor are the most likely to remain so throughout their lives.

Is there much that can be done now to reduce inequalities 20 years hence? Well, I don't think we know the answers, but at least we can see the importance of the question - it is the core of a new and ambitious project, launched by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, called Incomes and Inequalities 2021. The group had its first meeting 10 days ago, so it is still at the stage of framing lines of inquiry rather than coming to any conclusions. But already a couple of themes have emerged that deserve a wider airing.

A starting-point is that policies are much more likely to be effective if they attack the root causes of poverty rather than try to patch the consequences. While those consequences may (and should), to some extent, be alleviated by government redistribution, there is a danger that government will have to run harder and harder just to stay in the same place. Besides, for demographic reasons alone, governments a generation from now are likely to be under enormous financial pressure. There will be tremendous demand for services for the elderly and a gradually decreasing number of the people of working age who will have to pay for them.

So how do we attack those root causes? One potentially fruitful line is the idea of teaching young people life skills - the things you really need to know, rather than the things they test you on in examinations.

Great idea and not really a new one at all - for this is what many young people learnt a generation ago. These skills were, in those days, often gender-specific. My spouse recalls being taught to darn. I remember being taught to fire a Bren gun. (Short bursts; aim bottom left of target because the recoil pulls you up and to the right.) Not all these skills will be useful in later life - I have never had to fire a light machine gun - but the principle surely is valid.

If you had to try to set out the things that young people need to know in the 21st century, what would they be? I suggest they might fall into three broad categories: basic "looking after yourself" skills, interpersonal skills and handling money.

To suggest the first of these may almost seem patronising, but there is so much evidence that many people don't look after themselves very well that it may be the best place to start. Under this head would come things such as eating a balanced diet - look at the evidence of rising obesity. It would include how to recognise that you are not well and what to do about it. It would include personal hygiene, how to cook, attitudes to alcohol and drugs, the need to create a structure for one's day, the need to take some form of exercise and so on.

Interpersonal skills are now being recognised as enormously important in the workplace, but that is only half the issue, maybe the less important half. People have to have these skills outside the workplace, too. Non-work interpersonal skills might include: how to pick friends, the importance of being on time for social events as well as for work - people who turn up an hour late for dinner are saying they think their time is more important than that of other people. These skills include the ability to say sorry gracefully or to know when it is appropriate to make a joke. Most crucially (though I'm not sure that charm is a learnt skill or an innate one) people need to know that life is easier and more fun if other people like them. Finally, there is that rather rare interpersonal skill of knowing exactly when to keep your mouth shut.

And so to the money skills. Most people assume that the key skill here is in making lots of the stuff. It isn't. Earnings matter, but managing money wisely matters even more. It ought to be possible to teach people the need to save, the facts about interest rates, the extent to which choices made in the 20s about careers and partners are likely to have a profound effect on prosperity in old age. And, I suggest, people need to know about pensions - the hardest thing to teach the young because it never occurs to them that they will become old.

Interestingly, this lack of money skills cuts across normal education boundaries: there are plenty of well-educated people who are hopeless at managing their money and plenty of less-advantaged people who manage it very well.

This suggested list of life skills is not at all comprehensive: it is more a quick stab at the sort of things people need to know if they are to get through life in reasonable shape. But it is enough of a stab to show that there is already a grave problem: how and where do you teach people these skills?

The schools? Yes, in some instances. But is it really realistic to load yet more things on to teachers already overburdened and demoralised by the form-filling they have to do now? Many life skills are far too subtle to be taught in any formal way. And what do you do with young adults who have already left the system?

My guess is that while some additional skills can be taught in schools, most will have to come from outside. The trouble is that there is not much "outside". A generation ago, we would have looked to voluntary organisations such as sports clubs, the Scouts or the Guides to do it. They still exist, and a lot could be done to help to rebuild their reach, but they are unlikely to get to the most disadvantaged young people, the people who need them most.

However, that is surely the way to start. The teaching of life skills is more likely to be a bottom-up than a top-down movement. Back lots of experiments, try lots of small schemes and see what works. When there are successes, reinforce them. At least we know there is a problem - and a grave one. That is a start in itself.

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