Here are some numbers that too many people who work in and around politics don’t know. In any given year, around 700,000 young people turn 18 and leave school. A little under half of them go on to higher education (HE). The other half, around 360,000, do something else.
Roughly half of these non-HE school leavers would normally get a job. Another 60,000 or so would become apprentices. And quite a lot – more than 100,000 – would go down in the stats as ‘not sustained’ or ‘activity not captured’ meaning that whatever they did, it didn’t last, or that they have dropped out of the view of educational statisticians. In other words, life has not gone well for them.
This annual group of around 360,000 kids is skewed towards families in lower income brackets. They don’t get talked about much at the best of times at Westminster, where almost all conversation about school-leavers is about A-levels and university entry. Because that’s what most people at Westminster did, and what they expect their kids to do.
The result is that, even in normal times, several hundred thousand young people leave school each year largely ignored by a lot of the people who make and talk about policy. There are honourable exceptions: Gavin Williamson, Rob Halfon and Angela Rayner are all keenly aware of the ‘other half’ of school leavers. But their efforts have not been enough to bring balance to our national conversation about education.
And in the Government’s plan for the ongoing coronavirus lockdown, that collective political neglect is becoming an almost scandalous silence. Because the effect of the lockdown policies now being put in place is to push those 360,000 young people (and possibly more) over an economic cliff-edge. Worse, the decision to do so has not been announced or even acknowledged.
Let me explain this a bit.
Secondary schools are closed. They are probably going to remain closed until September, with the limited exception of ‘some face to face contact’ with teachers for Year 10 and 12 kids, who have exams in summer 2021.
The fact that English secondary schools will remain closed to other pupils for the rest of this academic year is not mentioned in the government’s coronavirus Command Paper published today, which says only this:
“‘Secondary schools and further education colleges should also prepare to begin some face to face contact with Year 10 and 12 pupils who have key exams next year, in support of their continued remote, home learning.’
Nor was it mentioned in the PM’s speech last night. It was, it appears, communicated to journalists by ‘officials’ doing the media briefing around the speech yesterday, allowing papers and broadcasters to state it as fact.
But as I write this, there appears to be no clear on-record statement from the Government that ministers are resigned to secondary schools remaining closed until September.
The consequence of such a closure is that if you’re an 18-year-old in Year 13, your schooling is over. As this sinks in, expect more media commentary about the middle-class problems of estimated A-level grades, starting uni in the coronavirus economy, and the emotional challenge of leaving school without ceremony, fanfare and ‘closure’.
All important issues, of course, but all frankly less important than the questions about what now happens to the 360,000 or so 18-year-olds who have just been shunted into full adult life without notice or explanation. Because if you’re part of that 52 per cent who will not go on to university, your formal education is now over.
Your working life is now beginning in the worst possible circumstances, since many of the sectors that are most likely to offer employment to young people without experience or higher-level skills are now in a state of suspended animation. A lot of kids who have grown up poor and done badly at school have just been pitched headlong into a paralysed labour market without any official communication. Those who inevitably end up unemployed will bear the economic and possibly psychological scars of that experience for life.
Perhaps those kids’ schools will be doing their best to offer support and guidance on starting a career in a frozen economy. But shouldn’t a decision of such magnitude be spelled out clearly to those who are affected by it?