No change means no chance for young people

Educational maintenance must be reformed to allow opportunity for all, argues Gordon Brown
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The Independent Online
There is one clear objective to the review of public expenditure on young people over the age of 16 that the Labour Party has announced. It is to break the vicious cycle where poor educational qualifications breed unemployment, poverty and social division.

In the 1990s, every young person should have a skill and qualification. And they should all have work or training. Making sure every individual has a stake in education and employment demands a national crusade for change in which tough choices will have to be made so that we use our resources efficiently and equitably.

Britain still has one of the poorest records among all our major competitors when it comes to young people staying on in higher education. And we have one of the highest proportions of children leaving school at 16. The latest figures suggest that 30 per cent leave with no qualifications or inadequate grades at GCSE, deprived of the skills a modern economy needs.

The costs of wasting the talents of a lost generation of young people are high. We see them in unemployment, social division, the loss of economic potential and high youth crime rates in our city centres and housing estates.

Look around London or any major city today. More than 25 per cent of young men under 25 are without a job. Many of them have never worked in their lives. In London, up to 60 percent of young black men are without work. If we do not act now on behalf of those who have been shut out and excluded, we will face decades of social division - a vicious circle of dole, alienation and social conflict.

The costs of doing nothing are far greater than the cost of taking action. For, at the worst extreme, young people, feeling abandoned and forgotten, drift into crime. One-third of crimes are committed by those under 21. As a nation, we end up spending as much on the costs of crime committed by the under-25s as the Government does on youth training.

The present system is failing. And the people who lose most are the people who are already disadvantaged. Eighty per cent of the sons and daughters of the unskilled still leave school at 16. Some go on to college, but most disappear from full-time education for ever.

So for Peter Lilley and John Major to make "no change" their rallying cry when they attack me is as offensive as their suggestion that poverty no longer exists. To paraphrase John Redwood, and apply his words to the prospects for thousands of young people, "no change means no chance".

As I said in my John Smith Memorial lecture, meaningful equality of opportunity must be more than some pass-fail event at 16 which defines success or failure for ever. Equality of opportunity must mean recurrent, lifelong chances for education and employment - and a clear duty on government to help make this possible.

Old-style equality of opportunity provided a ladder that only a few could climb. A modern definition of equality of opportunity must be a broad highway that people can join throughout their lives. It must mean the continuous creation and re-creation of educational and employment opportunities for all - second, third and fourth chances to succeed. It cannot mean a young person being denied education after 16 because of poverty.

The status quo is not working. And one reason is our unfair and chaotic system of financial support. Even for those lucky enough to be offered college places after 16, there is an untidy and inequitable patchwork of provision. Some receive grants, some do not. And, whatever the Government claims, child benefit does not persuade sufficient numbers of school pupils to stay on.

This embarrassing patchwork of educational maintenance must be reformed. Maintenance grants can range from pounds 20 a week to 90 pence or nothing at all. Help has little to do with need, more to do with where you live and whether you can afford to stay on anyway.

So we must be bold. It is to persuade more people to stay on at school and achieve greater equality in education that Chris Smith, David Blunkett and I are carrying out our review into the financing of post-16 education - a review agreed by our Economic Policy Commission.

Child benefit will, of course, remain universal for children up to 16 - where it is universal at the moment. But it is not universal for young people from 16 to 18 and never has been. Only half the mothers of 16- to 18-year-olds receive it, and they tend to be from wealthier families. The mother of an unemployed 16-year-old loses it; the mother of an Etonian sixth-former receives pounds 1,500 over three years.

That is why we need change. One option is to upgrade child benefit into a national educational grant for those who need it. Our aim is to make it possible for more to stay on at school or remain in education and ensure that every young person has both a skill and a chance of a job.

Making New Labour's priorities count, I have always said, demands hard choices. Anyone who believes that New Labour is about soft options or easy answers has misunderstood modernisation. And tough choices are needed most of all to solve just about the toughest problem of all - the waste of the talents of a lost generation.

The writer is Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer and Labour MP for Dunfermline East.