It can’t have escaped your attention that young people today have got it pretty damn tough. University fees are now so high that only the most elite candidates (or those who have rich parents to support them) can even contemplate further education. And for the lucky few who do manage to get onto degree courses (though calling them lucky given how much debt they’ll be saddled with for the rest of their adult lives seems somewhat paradoxical), there’s no guarantee they’ll even get a job at the end of it.
Then there are the doomsayer statisticians who – if they are to be believed – are highlighting deeply worrying levels of youth unemployment despite the various measures the Government’s has put in place to address the problem. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, for example, show the unemployment rate for 16 to 24-year-olds is now more than double that of the wider population, with one in five young people not in employment, education or training (NEET). And in a recent report Unicef UK put the UK near-bottom of an international league table of young people where employment, education, training and teen pregnancy were concerned. Is it surprising, therefore, that so many young people today feel paralysed by hopelessness?
Yesterday in the news it was reported that an independent girls’ school in London had launched “Blow your own trumpet week,” an initiative to help its pupils celebrate their successes and “raise girls’ sense of self-worth.” Whilst such initiatives must obviously be celebrated as a way of helping make young people feel more valued by society and more positive about the future, it’s worth noting that the pupils in this particular example already have the advantage of attending private school – a privilege which, according to the Brightside Trust, only 7% of young people in this country are bestowed with, despite private school-educated students being “vastly over-represented at leading universities, and in a number of jobs and key professions.”
Of course those who are fortunate enough to have a good education and solid family and financial support still need to be encouraged to succeed, but what about those who aren’t so fortunate? As things currently stand there are thousands of young people who are falling through the gap into obscurity and poverty because they aren’t receiving the support they need – from their families, from their schools and from the Government. The problem is further compounded by the fact that the most ‘at-risk’ young people are the ones who are labelled as ‘trouble makers’ by their teachers and peers. Without some form of intervention these labels can stick for life, and lead to a cycle of underachieving that’s difficult to break.
It’s all very well creating vocational opportunities and training courses for disadvantaged young people, but what the Government’s failing to address is the underlying issues that lead to young people dropping out in the first place. If your home life is chaotic – your parents might have drug or alcohol addictions or mental health problems, for example, meaning you have to care for your younger siblings whilst juggling school work and the normal pressures of being a teenager – and you’ve never had a role model to speak of then you’re hardly likely to be in the best mental state to start an apprenticeship. You only had to watch this week’s episode of The Secret Millions to see that many disadvantaged young people lack the vital interpersonal skills required to succeed in the world of work.
But it’s not all doom and gloom; there are interventions that are helping disadvantaged young people. One such intervention is Teens and Toddlers, a charity which runs the only youth development programme to benefit two sets of vulnerable children simultaneously, raising the aspirations of young people aged between 13 and 17 by pairing them as a mentor and role model to a child in a nursery who is in need of extra support (for example refugees whose first language is not English, or children with autism). The young people act as mentors to the children and the children, in turn, provide the teens with a sense of responsibility.
Outside of the nursery the teenagers take part in classroom sessions with trained facilitators which focus on anger and behavioural management, emotional intelligence (including self-management and social skills) and barriers to achievement, such as bullying and understanding the impact of risky behaviours. At the end of the programme graduates earn an accredited NCFE Level 1 Award in Interpersonal Skills, which helps them on the path to further education and builds their sense of pride.
The success of this model – and the results do show it to be thus, with only 3% of graduates of the programme becoming NEET and 1.6% reporting a pregnancy, despite initial predictions by their teachers that 45% would drop out or become pregnant – has its roots firmly embedded in Psychosynthesis, a branch of positive psychology that focuses on potential-orientation. The essence of this approach is that everyone – irrespective of class, wealth or race – has the innate potential to be successful. But for those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds it’s obviously harder to realise this potential.
Many disengaged young people don’t believe they’ll ever amount to anything because they feel society’s already written them off. But if they are given responsibility and respect, and shown through experience the breadth of life choices available to them then it can change their outlook completely. This is why the Teens and Toddlers programme works so well. Teens who have never had a positive role model find one in the facilitator, who helps them to understand the scope of their potential and the consequences of the choices they make in life. The time they spend with the young children builds their sense of responsibility and self-esteem, and also gives them valuable insight into what it would be like to be a teen parent.
All young people should have the opportunity to unlock their potential and be the best that they can be – not just the privileged few (myself one of them) who have attended private schools. And whilst achieving that dream will be no easy feat, programmes such as Teens and Toddlers (which I’m fortunate to be involved with) are at least giving the most disadvantaged young people a greater chance of success.