Youth will always be envied by the old, but this is not the easiest time to be young. The challenges young people face are greater than they have been for decades, and certainly for a generation. The wonder is that so many surmount them, and do so triumphantly. This week sees the publication of A-level results, the culmination for many teenagers of an education punctuated by, and oriented towards, tests. Yet their results will, if outstanding, be treated as suspect because of doubts about grade inflation and, if poor, as proof of falling educational standards. Some of those with an A* grade find that universities refuse to acknowledge them.
For the majority, competition for university places is at record levels, following applications from 660,000 people, a 12 per cent rise on last year. And the number of places available in the clearing system is expected to drop by a third. Predictably, the numbers expected to resit exams are also at record levels.
These bald figures represent an extraordinary picture of hope, frustrated hope and indomitable persistence. But even for those who succeed in getting to university, their very success brings with it formidable debt: most face the prospect of repaying some £25,000 in loans. The graduate tax suggested by the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, would put the greatest burden on those in the most remunerative professions, which could have the unwanted consequence of deterring working-class pupils from studying law and medicine. Indeed, it could be argued that the system had already failed those pupils. David Willetts, the universities minister, has a point when he says that many schools are conspiring against students' success by guiding them towards unsuitable subjects: encouraging a would-be engineer to study PE, religious studies and geography is to make failure more likely. For schools oriented towards results, easier subjects make for better league-table standing, but for the pupil it can be disastrous. This Government should be judged, among other measures, on whether it increases the number of state school pupils taking single science subjects, languages and classics.
Public spending cuts, inevitably, fall hard on the young. Exempting the NHS from cutbacks has put additional pressure on other departments, notably education. The school-building programme is only the most obvious casualty, but there are others, such as the Future Jobs Fund, which helped young people into work. As the TUC points out, youth unemployment, at 17 per cent, is about twice the average. Unpaid internships favour the children of the middle classes, not least because it is only they who can afford to live without a wage at home. The debate about whether to give interns jobseekers' allowance matters to the hard-up.
The housing market is unfriendly to first-time buyers, too. Banks are wary of providing mortgages and the dearth of affordable housing in the private-rented sector makes Britain unique, in a bad way, among our Continental neighbours. If we had a vigorous private rented sector – perhaps, as in Germany, with housing owned by private institutions – it could go some way to alleviating the problems faced by school leavers in finding a home.
And yet it is impossible to engage with young people without being impressed by the optimism and enthusiasm of so many of them. The flowering of worldwide volunteering during gap years is particularly striking. Our report on Plan UK and Shoot Nations shows how willing the young are to engage with those of other countries. The success of projects such as Teach First, which enables some of the best graduates to teach in the most challenging schools, is an example of genuine public spirit.
The resilience of the young can be seen, too, in the upsurge in school leavers applying directly for apprenticeships rather than to university. The number of leavers applying for City and Guilds vocational qualifications has risen by a fifth in a year. Employers as diverse as Network Rail and PriceWaterhouseCooper report a marked increase in applicants for training programmes, which allow entrants to bypass university altogether. This shows a commendable pragmatism. Yet the coalition has, notwithstanding its commitment to apprenticeships, announced only 50,000 new ones; we need more.
This week, then, let us give respect and sympathy, to our young people. They face challenges their parents never had to. They are, taking all in all, a credit to this country. And if some of them fail to find work, higher education or training, the fault may be as much their elders' as theirs.Reuse content