Beyond the heartache of a nation in which so many have lost their lives due to COVID-19, one of the hardest things has been witnessing the unfolding challenges young people have faced during this difficult time. In particular, the pandemic has had a major impact on education, employment and mental health. Sadly, but not surprisingly, the young people most impacted by this crisis are those who were already in a precarious situation before the pandemic. Particularly, disadvantaged Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) and white working class youth.
As we move forward and slowly embark on the road to recovery, I worry that these disadvantaged groups will fall off society’s priority list. We need to urgently create a strategy to deal with this crisis. We cannot have a repeat of the financial crisis where we lost a whole generation because of our failure to act. Addressing the ongoing problems that the pandemic has exacerbated, we have a unique opportunity to create positive solutions. I’m not just talking about a post-pandemic quick fix. Rather, we have the chance to build a fairer system that works for all young people long into the future.
Serving on the House of Lords Youth Unemployment Committee, my colleagues and I are in the privileged position of being able to undertake a deep dive into some of the issues affecting youth and to suggest actions to resolve them. As a relatively new parliamentarian on my first select committee, this is fantastically exciting.
Throughout my career, from a young activist to a member of the Lords, I’ve witnessed the barriers that many young racialised people face in relation to education, employment and the economy. The barriers are captured by the decade’s old mantras for Black and Asian parents who constantly have to tell their children that life will be particularly challenging because of the colour of their skin, foreign sounding name and/or religion. As such, their children work much harder in the belief that education can be a route out of inequality and poverty. Despite these mantras, even those who excel academically face significant barriers to the top universities and best jobs.
On the other scale, the numbers don’t lie. We see disadvantaged young people, especially young black men, suspended or expelled from schools at much higher rates than their white counterparts. This is not just a hard stop for opportunity. It can sometimes lead to incarceration, or worse. While families and communities must take full responsibility when things start to go wrong, we must also be brutally honest about a system that often perpetuates inequality. The fact that Black children get better exam grades when marked blindly attests to that fact.
Our committee has been refreshingly open and honest in facing these kinds of questions, both amongst ourselves and with the educators and employers we’ve spoken to. I’ve felt particularly privileged in getting young people from minority backgrounds to share their experiences with the committee. Through these discussions, we’ve identified a kaleidoscope of challenges. For instance, in some white working class communities, aspiration and motivation are central problems. Meanwhile, other groups don’t lack aspiration but are held back by societal barriers. These distinct but very real barriers need to be finely understood if we are to stand any chance of tackling them.
I’m glad to say that most educators and employers we’ve spoken to are aware of the problems and honest about the scale of the changes required. Many companies understand that, by default rather than design, their systems have locked out certain groups and offered others an easy pathway, by adopting narrow criteria of what talent or educational success looks like. Technical academies and colleges have shown us that it’s possible to break the mould. Many disadvantaged young people leaving these institutions go on to do fantastic things – an especially commendable achievement considering that these schools often operate in areas of high deprivation.
The committee’s job now is to highlight transformative examples. Those we’ve found are diverse but share a common mindset and pathway, demonstrating how talent can be spotted and nurtured. The hope is to scale these pathways for other areas around the country.
The urgency of our work is clear. The North Star driving the entire committee is the knowledge that now is a time to unleash talent and to make use of all the capacity and resources in our society, not shackle it through persistent inequality and prejudice. Any solution to youth employment cannot be one-size-fits-all. Instead, we should aim for a nuanced articulation of the issues that different communities face. Getting this right could be transformative for youth today and future generations. This excites me whilst also filling me with trepidation. The entire committee feels a sense of duty to this. We don’t have the luxury of getting it wrong. This is one of the most consequential reports many of us will ever deliver.
Following the report's release in the autumn, we hope central government will use it to drive necessary policy changes. We also have our eyes on big business and frontline academic institutions. There’s too much at stake not to have a wide range of actors engaging with our work, lifting from the learning we’ve done. I believe we’re on track to provide an invaluable toolkit that will help us overcome one of society’s greatest challenges.