Too young and too precious to waste

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The Independent Online
WHAT should we do about our young people who drop out? It is one of the great tragedies of our time that, just when young people are in short supply - in Britain the 16-year-old age group is the smallest since the Second World War - we should be failing to use their talents by creating so few opportunities for them.

By international standards our levels of youth unemployment are not too bad. While 16 per cent of our under-20s are unemployed, the comparable figures for the US and Canada are nearly 20 per cent; Australia and Finland, 25 per cent; Spain, 37 per cent; Italy, more than 40 per cent.

The problem is not just unemployment, though. Many young people between 16 and 18 are not in education, nor training, nor employment. They fall through the net.

Why, why, why? The trouble with most comment and analysis is that it comes laden with its own political baggage. The right will tend to focus on issues such as the breakdown of 'family values' or lax attitudes in schools. And the left, aside from using youth unemployment as a stick with which to beat the present Government, tends to single out the Thatcherite vices of the Eighties: the greed of the 'haves', rising inequality, and so on.

So it is wonderfully refreshing to read a new, clear, apolitical analysis looking at what is happening in one locality - the Cardiff area - based on talking to professionals and, just as important, young people themselves (Young People Not in Education, Training or Employment in South Glamorgan, by Gareth Rees, David Instance and Howard Williamson, published by South Glamorgan Training and Enterprise Council, pounds 40.)

It is unfair to summarise an academic work in a few short sentences, but the bones of the paper are as follows. Between 16 and 23 per cent of South Glamorgan's 16 and 17- year-olds are, at any one time, not in education, training or employment. Some move in and out of training and jobs, appearing on and disappearing from the registers of the various social service agencies; others are 'lost', in that they do not appear on official registers at all.

A number of studies have been made of these people, but the main value of this one is that it carried out detailed interviews with 26 such young people.

These make chilling reading. The teenagers frequently came, as one might expect, from broken homes. Some had been physically abused. Most had stopped going to school by the time they were 14. After that, with four exceptions, they had been through the gamut of agencies and schemes: youth training, homelessness, benefits payments, casual work, criminality, job search, agency contacts, custody, voluntary work, sickness benefit, parenthood, and so on.

The other four? They were more or less full-time professional criminals.

Some of these young people were fatalistic: 'Yes, I do feel sorry for myself sometimes . . . Nobody really cared. I suppose that's just the way it goes.'

Others were practical: 'Life's down to your own efforts. But if I was really desperate, I'd definitely resort to crime - no qualms. I just hope it never comes to that.'

And others were amoral: 'Now and again I have thought about the poor people who have had their stuff robbed . . . sometimes it makes me feel guilty, but I want the money. Fifty pounds lasts about 20 minutes. It's in one hand and out the other. I spend pounds 100- pounds 150 a week on ganja - not that much really.'

As for their perceptions of their future, they were pretty glum. They felt they had little option but to scramble along as best they could because their lack of qualifications and lengthening criminal records excluded them from proper jobs or other opportunities. But most of them only really wanted to settle down with a job, a flat and a family.

So what is to be done? The study makes a number of detailed proposals. These include: improving the quality of youth training; extending the Compact programme, an idea developed in Boston, Massachusetts, where local businesses agree to employ young people providing they meet targets for school attendance and achievement; better co-ordination between the various agencies; looking again at the way the 1988 Social Security Act has excluded 16- to 18-year-olds from income support; increasing training allowances; and many more.

The point about all this is that there is no single 'political' answer, but rather a host of small things that might be done, some of which may not help a great deal, but others of which are likely to work very well. A few of these initiatives are cheap; others will cost taxpayers some money.

But in costing the bill for improving opportunities for our 16- to 18-year-olds, we should surely be aware that there are large potential savings in lower crime and lower social security benefits. Leave aside the human aspect; there is almost certainly a powerful economic case for seeking to bring as many young people as possible back into the mainstream.

A lot is now being done to improve the qualifications of the 70 per cent or more of young people who stay on at school or college until they are 18, while the proportion going on to higher education has doubled in the past five years to roughly one third. Given the resources that are, quite properly, devoted to these people, it is surely only equitable that more attention should also be paid to the remaining 25 or 30 per cent who leave school at 16 (or before), to help them to manage that difficult but critical change between school and job, between being a child and being an adult.