Leading article: The real cost of jobless youth

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The Independent Online

Figures out today show that unemployment has reached 2.5 million.

This is depressing enough in itself, even if it is a predictable consequence of the economic downturn. But it becomes even more so when the breakdown shows that almost one million of those currently out of work are under 25. Some of these will be graduates who are experiencing difficulties securing a first job, and this number may rise into the autumn. But the vast majority are those who fit more conventionally into the category of so-called Neets, young people not in employment, education or training.

There are now more young people out of work than when Labour came to power 12 years ago, pledging to make jobs for young people a priority. And however much the recession can be held responsible, the number of young people who are now in no way engaged in the economic mainstream, except periodically to collect state benefits, represents a colossal failure of policy. For it reflects not only a shortage of available jobs, but failure down the line: a general failure, in particular, to prepare a significant minority of young people for work.

High truancy and drop-out rates, plus a relatively high number leaving school without any formal qualification, combine to suggest that schools are giving up on certain pupils and pupils are giving up on them. Pressure of league tables has tended to exacerbate this process, as schools incline not to enter pupils for tests if they believe they will fail. Easing the transition from school to work is a particularly weak point of our education system, where apprenticeships worth the name are in short supply and social pressure to find a job may be non-existent.

Nor will government plans to guarantee young people a place in work or training after a year without work necessarily improve matters. A year is a long time to be unoccupied; it quickly becomes a way of life. Moving directly from failure at school to failure in the labour market should not be an option for anyone. Keeping school-leavers somehow engaged might be more expensive than paying out basic benefits, but it has to be more cost-effective in the long run, socially as well as economically.