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Burnham For Mayor

Monday, 4 April 2011

The Coalition is blighting young people's life chances

Guardian Article

This week Nick Clegg is bringing out a white paper on social mobility. Somehow I doubt that the power of his words will be enough to repair the terrible damage that his government has already done to the hopes, dreams and life chances of young people.

In former industrial constituencies like mine, ladders of support to help young people get on in life are being systematically kicked away. With 20 universities so far confirming that they will charge the maximum £9,000 tuition fees, university is beginning to look like too big a gamble for many. Others are reeling from the scrapping of the Future Jobs Fund, Connexions and EMA.

Life is already much harder and more competitive for this generation. University is expensive. To get a job after studying, many young people are expected to work for free to get their foot on the ladder. And they may need well-connected parents to arrange an opportunity.

I don't have any confidence that the current crop of ministers have any real understanding of how the distribution of life chances, after a century of huge social progress, are becoming once again highly dependent on money and connections.

In 1911, only one in 14 jobs was could be classed professional. By 1951 this had risen to one in eight jobs, and by 2001 to more than one in three. In 1986, when I left school in the area I now represent, the national staying-on rate in full-time education was 47%. Today it is 86%. With every generation over the last century, life got better – what Ed Miliband calls the promise of Britain.

Families like mine were helped to break out of humble beginnings by a series of crucial public policy interventions – available housing, comprehensive education, the Open University.

But there is still a long way to go to make Britain fairer. And as we look ahead to this century, the prospects for young people – particularly those from the least well-off backgrounds – are uncertain.

On one level, it is a world full of possibilities. New technology has opened things up to new talent and broken down hierarchies and closed systems. But while the world may look more exhilarating, making one's way in it also looks more daunting.

For the first time in generations, parents fear that their children face a tougher struggle to get on in life than they did: new polling shows 71% of people believe life will be harder for the next generation with only 9% believing it will be easier.

I too am worried that we will soon see social mobility go into reverse. When they were in opposition the current government backed Sure Start – in government they have cut the funding available and removed the ringfence that protected it. They said they would protect schools, but they have cut the funding available per pupil. The pupil premium is supposed to help the poorest – but with a black hole in school budgets it doesn't even plug the gap. Meanwhile Michael Gove's elitist English baccalaureate sends a message to some students that they are second class.

The EMA helped the poorest young people to remain in post-16 education – and to stay the course, and to succeed. Michael Gove promised to keep the allowance but has slashed the fund by two thirds and turned a successful scheme into a shambles.

Nick Clegg promised that universities charging £9,000 would be the exception, but with government funding now all but gone they are queueing up to charge the top rate.

It infuriates me when I hear Clegg asking in frustration why people can't understand that they won't have to pay back the debt until they have a well-paid job. It's not that they don't understand, Nick. It's you. They know it's so much harder to have the confidence to aim high in life if you don't have firm foundations beneath you. The less you have the bigger the gamble.

I want a country with a more even spread of life chances – where it's not background, accent or education that shape your future, but the talent you have. I want to see social progress and social mobility increase in this century, not fall into reverse.

This means an approach that starts at birth, building on our pioneering Sure Start programme and taking it further; supporting families to do more to help the next generation.
It means building an economy with more high paid jobs and better routes for progression. It means a much clearer offer for the 50% of young people who will not go to university, with clear routes into the workplace via apprenticeships. Unfairness – like the rise of unpaid internships that make it harder for young people to get into the professions – must be tackled.

The forthcoming white paper will no doubt restate the government's commitment to social mobility. But with Sure Start centres facing closure, and youth unemployment at nearly one million, it won't convince young people.