Youth Unemployment and the Youth Contract - Work and Pensions Committee Contents

7  Related policy areas: education and skills

172. Our inquiry went beyond the Youth Contract measures to consider policy areas which directly affect young people's employability. As well as the cyclical and structural causes of youth unemployment highlighted in chapter 2, witnesses pointed to systemic problems within the education system that some argued were having a detrimental impact on young people's employment prospects. This chapter focuses on how well young people are being prepared for the transition to employment during their time in education. It does so in the context of recent reforms of work-related learning and careers advice, ongoing reforms of vocational education in England (following Professor Alison Wolf's 2011 review) and the Government's proposal to raise the education participation age to 18 in England by 2015.

School and college-leavers' skills

173. The CBI told us that young people trying to enter the labour market for the first time often "simply do not have the right skills". It was concerned about low educational attainment, noting that in 2010 some 9.7% of all 16-24 year-olds held no formal qualifications of any kind. It was also concerned that the proportion of 16-24 year-olds who achieved GCSEs at grades A*-C had declined between 2009 and 2010.[151] Other witnesses highlighted the failure by a significant minority of young people to attain basic proficiency in English and Maths as one of the main barriers to employment. The Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) told us that providers of post-16 skills training and employers consistently complained about the "sorry state" of school leavers' basic skills.[152] Professor Wolf highlighted in her 2011 review of vocational education in England that less than half of students achieve both English and Maths GCSEs at grades A*-C.[153]

174. Young people themselves recognise the importance of basic levels of literacy and numeracy. Prince's Trust staff told us during our visit to the Fairbridge Programme in Kennington that English and Maths courses were the most popular of those the Trust offered to disadvantaged young NEETs.

175. In addition to formal qualifications, young people's "soft skills" were of particular concern to organisations representing businesses. The Forum of Private Business (FPB) told us that small business owners reported problems with attitude, punctuality and "common sense". Some young people were not willing to work unsocial hours when necessary or "even to get up early". The FPB reported that school-leavers considered some menial tasks "beneath them". There was a view amongst FPB's members that these kinds of attitudes and lack of skills made young people "very resource intensive" to employ.[154] The CBI agreed that key "employability skills", such as team-working, were often lacking in young people. Its view was that a significant proportion of young people leave school without the "qualifications or competencies" required to secure their first job.[155]

176. However, CIPD and Inclusion both expressed caution about the view that young people's skills in general are not meeting the requirements of employers. Inclusion noted evidence from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) that suggests it is only those "at the bottom of the labour market" whose skills fail to match up to employers' requirements.[156]

177. The then Minister for Further Education, Skills and Learning also felt that some commentators were over-stating the case and put up a "robust defence" of young people, telling us that:

    When employers complain that 16 year-olds have not got employability skills, I do not quite know what they expect. What they might reasonably anticipate is that people can read, write and count, have a reasonable degree of self-discipline and have a reasonable set of values, which have been imparted in part by their family and in part by their schooling.[157]

178. Whilst Ministers acknowledged that there were "significant skills challenges" and stressed that the Government recognised the importance of "core skills", on which it was "re-focussing", the then Minister for Employment also noted that UKCES survey evidence suggested that educational issues were in fact low down on the list of employers' concerns. His view was that the Government's "bigger challenge" was simply to encourage employers to give young people a chance in the first place.[158] The recent UKCES report to which the Minister referred had found that only 24% of employers had recruited a young person directly from education in the last two to three years. UKCES urged employers to do more to address the youth unemployment problem and called on every employer in the UK to implement its own "youth policy".[159]

179. Kevin Green of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) suggested that the main problem was a lack of understanding of what employers are really looking for, which he described as the "expectations gap". Young people's perceptions are often that employers want qualifications and knowledge whereas employers say they want young people with the "right attitude". He told us that young people who leave education with GCSEs, A levels or a degree often have the perception that their qualifications will be the "key entry ticket to the labour market". He highlighted data from the CBI which shows that, in fact, employers consider experience and employability skills such as self-management and problem-solving as the most important characteristics of potential recruits.[160]

180. Several witnesses felt that understanding between young people and employers could be improved by better links between schools and local businesses. While many schools had excellent business links, the wider picture was very inconsistent. Kirsty McHugh of ERSA noted that Education Business Partnerships had once provided a "fairly uniform structure" for schools and businesses to collaborate but reduced local authority funding had limited their reach. She argued that, while a number of voluntary and business organisations such as Business in the Community and the Education and Employers Taskforce, were attempting to fill the gap, links between schools and employers were "piecemeal". The FPB also noted that there were "a number of good and free initiatives out there" including Inspiring the Future, which brings business people into schools to talk to students.[161] However, Kevin Green of REC felt that schools were often quite fearful about allowing access to their students.[162]

Raising the participation age

181. As noted above, the Government is planning to increase the age at which young people in England can leave education or training. If the necessary legislation is enacted, from 2013 young people will be required to participate until the end of the academic year in which they turn 17 and from 2015 the participation age is likely to be increased to 18. There will be three post-16 options for young people:

·  Full-time education, such as school, college or home education;

·  An apprenticeship; or

·  Part-time education or training if they are employed, self-employed or volunteering full-time (defined as 20 or more hours per week).[163]

182. In the context of the likely rise in the participation age a number of witnesses raised concerns about the quality and labour market value of post-16 education—particularly vocational courses—available to young people.[164] The CIPD told us that the UK is "characterised by relatively weak Vocational Education and Training". It noted that countries with stronger vocational routes, such as Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, have lower levels of youth unemployment. [165] CIPD argued that:

    [...] to improve the labour market access of young people and the matching of skills supply and demand, it is vital to improve Vocational Education and Training routes (VET), promote parity of esteem between academic and vocational routes and provide real alternatives to university education.[166]

The Wolf review of vocational education in England

183. Professor Alison Wolf's 2011 review of vocational education for 14 to 19 year-olds in England found that most young people now take some vocational courses before they are 16. The majority of young people in post-16 education follow some courses which are in part or entirely vocational. Professor Wolf identified significant failings in the post-16 vocational education system. She found that many 16 and 17 year-olds "churn" between education and short-term employment "in an attempt to find either a course which offers a real chance for progress, or a permanent job, and are finding neither".[167]

184. One of the key findings of the Wolf Report was that, while many young people do find successful routes into employment or higher education via vocational courses:

    The staple offer for between a quarter and a third of the post-16 cohort is a diet of low-level vocational qualifications, most of which have little or no labour market value. Among 16 to 19 year-olds, the Review estimates that at least 350,000 get little to no benefit from the post-16 education system.[168]

185. A number of witnesses supported the wide-ranging recommendations of the Wolf Report which include:

·  Distinguishing clearly between qualifications (both academic and vocational) which contribute to recognised performance indicators and those which do not;

·  Focussing courses for low-attaining learners on the "core academic skills of English and Maths"; and

·  Ensuring that schools and colleges "involve local employers on a regular basis [...] in the assessment and awarding processes used for vocational awards".[169]

186. The Government fully endorsed the findings of the Wolf Report, which it described as a "brilliant, and ground-breaking, report", and has accepted all 27 of its recommendations. The Secretary of State for Education has noted, however, that the required reforms are complex and "will take years".[170]

187. The then Minister for Further Education, Skills and Learning told us that the only way to ensure skills provision matches up to the requirements of the labour market was to "create greater employer engagement in the skills system". To this end, the Minister had initiated a £250 million Employer Ownership Pilot run by the UKCES which had invited employers' input into how the further education and skills system can be made more "responsive and sensitive" to employers' needs.[171]

188. We believe that reform of vocational education is required to avoid young people wasting time on courses of little or no labour market value, particularly as the education participation age in England rises to 18 by 2015. The Government has recognised the need to take action in its response to the Wolf Report. Steps to implement its recommendations now need to be taken as a matter of urgency. We request that the Government sets out, in its response to this Report, how it intends to proceed with these reforms, including the timetable for implementation in preparation for the change to the participation age in 2015.

Reform of school work experience and work-related learning

189. Almost all of the witnesses to our inquiry and many of the young people we met during our visits to the Prince's Trust and Jobcentre Plus, highlighted lack of work experience as a key factor in young people's comparative labour market disadvantage.

190. The CIPD and Inclusion both noted that fewer young people today combine part-time work with study than was the case in the past and therefore many do not have any paid work experience by the time they leave education. The recent UKCES report referred to above found that, where employers had considered young recruits poorly prepared for work, it was predominantly due to lack of work experience.[172] In this context a number of witnesses were concerned about the Government's recent statutory reform of work-related learning in schools in England at Key Stage 4 (at age 14-16).[173]

191. The Education Act 2002 gave schools the statutory duty to provide work-related learning, defined as "planned activity designed to use the context of work to develop knowledge, skills and understanding useful in work, including learning through the experience of work, learning about work and working practices and learning skills for work". The majority of schools have traditionally fulfilled this duty by arranging a short work experience placement for students with a local employer.

192. The Government recently decided to remove this duty from schools by removing the relevant sub-section of the Act by Statutory Instrument. Schools will therefore no longer be under a duty to provide work-related learning of any kind for students at KS4 or younger. Schools will however remain free to determine whether and how work experience for young people at KS4 is provided.[174]

193. Recent evidence points towards the difficulties of running effective school work experience programmes for 14-16 year-olds. City and Guilds found that many young people felt disillusioned by their work experience placement at KS4 and questioned the ability of schools to provide placements to suit all interests and career ambitions even if they had the inclination to do so.[175]

194. On a practical note, the Wolf Report concluded that such placements were disproportionately expensive and that employers were often reluctant to accommodate under-16 year-olds, primarily because of the amount of paperwork it entailed. Professor Wolf argued that schools and colleges should prioritise longer work experience placements and internships for the 16-18 age group.[176] The Forum of Private Business (FPB), representing the views of small business owners, also noted concerns about the practical difficulties. It pointed out that the fixed academic year created problems for businesses as a very large number of KS4 students seek placements at the same time, after the national examinations have concluded in May/June. Perceptions that there were bureaucratic obstacles to offering work experience, such as health and safety regulations and Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) requirements, were also common.[177]

195. However, Chris Bowman, owner of a small engineering company, told us that his business still arranged work experience placements for local school students despite the practical difficulties.[178] The FPB argued that work experience is "vital" for young people and called for "more work experience for all 14 plus age groups". Its view was that the Government should "rethink" the removal of the statutory duty, arguing that "the earlier young people can get a taste for the workplace, the better their job prospects and attitudes will be."[179]

196. Kevin Green of REC made a case for work-related learning for students from age 9, 10 or 11. He believed it was important that schools should be encouraged to incorporate work-related learning into subject lessons and find innovative ways of doing so. REC's view was that many businesses were keen to be involved in this. Kevin Green felt that the removal of the statutory duty signified that the Government believed that work experience at KS4 was not working well and therefore work-related learning for younger age groups should no longer happen. His view was that this was the wrong response to the Wolf Report findings.[180]

197. The Government rebutted this interpretation of its policy. The then Minister for Employment told us that the Government considered it "very important" that the typical one or two week work experience placement in KS4 continues. He also felt that health and safety and CRB concerns were often overstated and that it would be "a desperate shame" if perceived bureaucratic requirements prevented young people from undertaking work experience placements. His view was that there was "absolutely no reason at all" why employers should feel deterred from offering placements to young people.[181]

198. The then Minister for Further Education, Skills and Learning told us that the decision to remove the statutory duty had been motivated by a desire to allow schools flexibility in how they provide work-related learning and to "drive up standards [...] by creating examples of best practice" rather than through legislation.[182]

199. In supplementary written evidence the Government clarified its rationale for removing the statutory duty. It told us there were three elements to its thinking:

·  To give school leaders the freedom to use their professional judgement to meet the needs of their pupils;

·  Alison Wolf's concerns about the quality of pre-16 work-related learning and her recommendation that we should focus our efforts on improving post-16 work experience; and

·  The wider context that all young people [in England] will be required to be in education or training (including work-based training) until they are 18 years of age [by 2015 if the Government's planned legislation is enacted].[183]

200. Business organisations appear ready to play an increased role in the provision of work-related learning and careers information, advice and guidance. We welcome and support the current examples of innovative measures which link schools with local employers and help young people to understand and engage with local labour markets. We recommend that the Government plays an active role in facilitating a national infrastructure which allows such initiatives to flourish.

201. We also support giving schools flexibility in how they provide work-related learning. We acknowledge concerns, highlighted in the Wolf Report and echoed by witnesses to our inquiry, about the practical difficulties and sometimes disproportionate cost of the traditional one or two week work experience placement at age 14-16. We also acknowledge the rationale behind prioritising work-related learning for older students—a decreasing proportion of young people in England will enter employment at age 16 as the education participation age rises to 18. However, we believe school-arranged work experience placements should continue for pupils whom schools believe will benefit most from the experience.

202. It would be regrettable if schools chose not to provide work-related learning for younger age groups as a result of the recent removal of the statutory duty at Key Stage 4. As well as arranging work experience placements where appropriate, we believe schools, in co-operation with local employers, should incorporate work-related learning into lessons at Key Stage 4 and for younger school students. We are concerned that the removal of a broadly defined statutory duty will send the message to schools that work-related learning is something they need not do. We request that, in response to this Report, the Government sets out how it envisages its new approach will enable schools to deliver effective work-related learning, including work experience where appropriate, for all school students.

Careers information, advice and guidance (IAG)

203. Young people we met at Twickenham JCP reported varied experiences of IAG at school. Some had attended workshops and talks by employers arranged by their schools but others felt that IAG provision was generally poor. One young person thought that schools focused on getting pupils through exams and had little time for preparing young people for employment.

204. The importance of good quality IAG was emphasised by a wide range of witnesses.[184] Some were very critical of the IAG provided by schools. For example, Neil Carberry of the CBI told us that "Careers advice quality—which started out as poor—is going downhill. We are failing our young people in helping them understand the world they are about to arrive in."[185]

205. The Government has recently made a number of changes to the way IAG will be provided for young people and adults. The newly established National Careers Service (NCS) will provide face-to-face IAG to people aged 19 years and over. Unemployed young people aged 18-24 years can receive up to "three, free, in-depth face-to-face sessions" from the NCS. As part of the Youth Contract, the NCS is offering a guidance session to any unemployed person aged 18-24 within the first three months of their JSA claim. Younger people aged 13 and over can access the NCS online and via a telephone helpline. The NCS will effectively replace Connexions services, which were funded by local authorities and offered IAG to young people aged 14-19 years old. Several witnesses noted that Connexions services have been under considerable financial pressure due to reductions in local authority budgets.[186]

206. Following a recent statutory reform, schools will have a legal duty to secure access to "independent and impartial" IAG for students aged 14-16. Meanwhile the Government has said that it will "support a flourishing market in careers services and products", such as the Inspiring the Future programme and Growing Ambitions, a volunteer scheme.[187]

207. Several witnesses were critical of the recent changes, particularly the provision of IAG for younger students. Inclusion noted that schools, which had already struggled to provide IAG within the Dedicated Schools Grant, now had a duty to provide "independent and impartial" IAG with no additional funding.[188] Work Programme providers were also critical, highlighting that closures of Connexions services had resulted in a "noticeable void" in the support for younger people.[189] Avanta Enterprise Ltd felt that gaps in provision of IAG were a "contributory factor" in youth unemployment, leaving some young people unaware of their post-16 options.[190] Kirsty McHugh of ERSA contended that "we know what works in terms of careers advice"—it should be given early, be of good quality, and delivered one-to-one.[191]

208. We asked the Government how it expected schools to provide quality IAG under the new arrangements. The then Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning pointed out that schools had previously had a duty to provide IAG but that provision was, in the Government's judgement, "patchy", with some schools doing it well and others less so. Its aim in creating a revised duty to secure "independent and impartial advice" was to improve the quality of IAG in schools. However, it was not clear from our exchange with the Minister how he expected this to be achieved in practice.[192]

209. We did not get a clear sense from Ministers of how the Government expects schools to provide good quality "independent and impartial" careers information, advice and guidance to students without additional funding to enable them to deliver this. We do not consider the National Careers Service's offer of online and telephone advice to younger students to be an adequate alternative to face-to-face careers guidance. We request, in response to this Report, a clear statement of the practical steps the Government wishes to see schools take to ensure their pupils have a good understanding of the jobs markets and the skills and qualifications required to pursue their chosen careers.

151   Ev 113, para 10 Back

152   Ev w8, para 2 Back

153   The Wolf Report, p 83 Back

154   Ev 140 Back

155   Ev 113, para 10 Back

156   Q 14 Back

157   Q 350 Back

158   Q 348 Back

159   "Employers urged to do more to stem rising tide of youth unemployment", UKCES press release, 2 July 2012 Back

160   Q 260 Back

161   Q 106 Back

162   Q 260 Back

163   See Back

164   See, for example, Working Links Ev w67; City and Guilds, Ev w22 Back

165   Ev 106, para 16 Back

166   Ev 106, para 17 Back

167   The Wolf Report, p 7 Back

168   Ibid Back

169   Ibid, recommendations 1, 7 and 27 ; Inclusion, Ev 104 Back

170   Foreword to The Wolf Report, pp 4-5 Back

171   Q 351 Back

172   See "Employers urged to do more to stem rising tide of youth unemployment", UKCES press release, 2 July 2012 Back

173   Ev 141  Back

174   Government response to the Wolf Report, April 2012 Back

175   City and Guilds research paper, Ways into Work, Views of children and young people on education and employment, May 2012 Back

176   The Wolf Report, recommendation 21 Back

177   Q 106 Back

178   Q 102 Back

179   Ev 141 Back

180   Q 263 Back

181   Q 336 Back

182   Q 347 Back

183   Ev 126 Back

184   See, for example, CBI, Ev 117; Inclusion Ev 100 Back

185   Q 122 Back

186   Rehab Group, Ev w46, para 25; YMCA, Ev w71, para 4.2; Association of Colleges, Ev w6, para 17 Back

187   BIS, National Careers Service: The Right Advice at the Right Time, April 2012, para 11 Back

188   Ev 100 Back

189   Ev 109, para 4.4 Back

190   Ev 94, para 5 Back

191   Q 273 Back

192   Q 335 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 19 September 2012