The Tories are neglecting those young people who didn’t go to university | Polly Toynbee

No one knows what was meant by “levelling up”. The very vagueness of this Boris Johnsonism was the key to its success. But the sky-high expectations raised in “red wall” seats look set to crash to Earth next week, among angrily disappointed voters in the Wakefield byelection.

Was it to be a levelling of people or places? Either way, an eloquent levelling up white paper landed earlier this year with no funding attached. When a minister last week called Birmingham and Blackpool “Godawful” places, it only confirmed suspicions that these Conservatives’ concerns for the “left behind” were always bogus: at heart, “Godawfuldom” is anywhere and anyone outside the south-east and the comfortable shires.

That attitude explains the neglect of those whose children don’t go to university, consigned to a subterranean distant world of further education colleges for other people’s children. A new Institute for Fiscal Studies report shows spending on adult education – for those 19 and over – and apprenticeships has fallen by 25% since 2010.

FE colleges can be gardens of second chances, bringing vocational opportunity to those ejected by the constricting world of A-levels. But there has been a great drop in adult learners, 33% fewer taking level 3 courses (A-level equivalent in a wide range of courses) and 50% fewer taking level 2 (GCSE equivalents). That’s not just a disaster for levelling up opportunities, but calamitous for this badly underskilled economy.

Tory politicians like to extol apprenticeships, but most are clueless about them. Incompetently mismanaging their apprenticeship levy on large employers, numbers have plummeted to just 50,000 adults starting the lowest level of apprenticeships, compared with 200,000 a decade ago. It was designed to encourage companies to retrieve the levy by taking on and training more school leavers, but employers use it instead to upskill existing more senior staff, many sending managers to take business degrees, hardly apprenticeships.

The high employment figures hide big variations: soaring job vacancies are often clustered in places and occupations that don’t fit the people or towns that most need decent jobs. But most alarming is the still high number of NEETs – young people leaving school who are not in education, employment or training. EDSK, an education and skills thinktank, reports that one in 10 16- to 24-year-olds are lost in that limbo, earnings scarred for life. Often from impoverished or troubled families, and with poor mental health or learning difficulties, they are failed by a narrow school system that doesn’t offer the vocational courses that might have rescued them.

Now 150 BTec qualifications – which bridged the divide for teenagers – are being axed, replaced by new T-levels, which again narrow the choices. Few of those young people, says the EDSK report, get career advice, which is now a “disjointed and confusing landscape” of contracted-out providers. Long gone is Labour’s Connexions service for teenagers that offered employment, mental health and career advice, all services for “other people’s children” silently swept away in the first 2010 austerity cuts.

Paul Johnson, the director of the IFS whose BBC Analysis programme, The Forgotten Half, explored the inferior treatment of the half of school leavers not heading for university, tells me: “I got the sense from politicians and civil servants that FE is not in their blood, never a priority; these courses are unknown to them or their children. Heads of FE colleges have none of the power of vice chancellors, everything is stacked against them.” FE teachers are paid considerably less than school teachers. The fear is that the Covid generation is producing an even larger cohort of lost school leavers, faring even worse, having drifted away in the lockdown, with utterly inadequate catchup support. The now axed national tutoring programme was outsourced to a company, Randstad, that failed miserably.

The Sutton Trust, which measures how much birth remains destiny, expects a 12% reduction in social mobility as a result of Covid and the government’s failure to invest in rescuing those lost children. Lee Elliot Major, a co-author of the study and professor of social mobility at Exeter University, says: “Stark learning losses, suffered disproportionately by poorer pupils during the pandemic, will leave long-term scars for current generations.” The education select committee warns of an “epidemic” of educational inequality.

Just when there should be maximum investment, encouragement and leeway for those damaged by the lockdown years, the government plans to deny student loans to any child without English and maths GCSEs: that stops chances for the most deprived to catch up. A quarter of free school meals pupils who would like to reach university would be rejected, no second chances for them.

In her inaugural speech last week, the head of the Social Mobility Commission, Katharine Birbalsingh, drew criticism for downplaying the importance of working-class children reaching Oxbridge. “If a child of parents who were long-term unemployed, or who never worked, gets a good job in their local area, isn’t that a success worth celebrating?” It is, but that success needs a burst of investment in second chances for those failed by the school system. With life chances all but fixed in early years, Labour’s pledge to restore the vandalised Sure Start programme for the youngest children has the best chance of bringing lifelong success.

In the great noisy decline of Johnson, among his many sins, lies and broken promises of “world-beating” everything, levelling up is his cruellest deceit. But the severe damage to life chances really began when the 2010 austerity axe fell on “Godawful” everywhere and everything that falls below the radar of most Tory MPs.

Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist

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