How do we create better life chances for young people? (Or the Boris Johnson Paradox)

What makes the difference in deciding where people ‘end up’ in life? Education? Family? Money? Networks? In truth, a complex mix of all of these, but I wonder if we sometimes fixate on education at the expense of other factors – and miss a massive opportunity to radically improve life chances.

After all, I can introduce you to a lot of people that got a decent 2:1 in a humanities subject who are a good way behind, say, Boris Johnson, in terms of both earning power and influence (irony optional.)

I remember Dr Anthony Mann, from the Education & Employers Taskforce making it very clear at the CESI Youth Employment Convention that no British generation of young people has ever been so highly qualified and yet increasingly struggles in the labour market.

So, on this subject, two anecdotes and a wish.

It’s not all about which school you go to

Many years ago, I did a site visit to an office in Middlesbrough, where the company I was working ran an employment programme. A young man was being seen by an advisor, who was encouraging him to apply for a job she had available. She left him to get started on the application form, whilst she went across the office to give some help to an older man who was job-searching online. When she came back, no progress had been made.

After talking to the young man, it became very clear that he wasn’t lazy, or uninterested, or being difficult. He was functionally illiterate. He actually couldn’t fill in the form.

Not an uncommon story from someone that works with the long-term unemployed.

But this one stuck with me for one reason that shocked me at the time. And it still does.

He had gone to the same school as me.

It’s quite a lot about role models

A few months ago, I was walking through town with my three-year old son. We were talking away and he was asking me questions about work.

“You used to work for other people, daddy?”

“Yes, that’s right, son.”

“But now you work for yourself?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Why do you work for yourself, daddy?”

“Well, because I wanted to do work that was important to me, and I wanted to make money for us not for other people.”

(Cue long, thoughtful, three year old pause…)

“When I grow up and I’m big like you, I want to work for myself daddy.”

It really struck me that this is where a lot of it happens. The influence and the environment around us when we are growing up. The role models we see. My dad was in the Merchant Navy. He went to sea at seventeen and stayed there for forty years until he retired. His dad did exactly the same thing before him.

When I was growing up, running your own business was something other people did. I had no model to copy.

When I got my first senior job at G4S, my dad was over the moon. “This is it son,” he said, “now you’re a senior manager, which means that you can move into any other senior management role in a big company.” I don’t think he meant it to send a shudder down my spine!

The Power of Influence

I tell these two anecdotes, because I think that they link together in some way.

The Commons’ Education Select Committee Report into Underachievement by White Working Class Children (2014) makes the very valid point that “students spend 18 to 19% of their adolescence in schools.” In other words, the influence of family, mentors and networks is critical.

Leicester City Council told the committee that “white working class culture is characterised by low aspirations and negative attitudes towards education.” In contrast, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation “felt that… aspirations were actually very high across all social groups,” but that “the difference between parents and children from richer and poorer backgrounds was the strength of their belief that they would be able to achieve such goals.”

Whichever way you look at it, this is more about belief, culture, values and community than it is about test scores and curricula.

Making a Difference

I really like the work that Young Enterprise UK do with schools – running programmes that “enable young people to finish education ready for the world of work” by focusing on key skills, character development and career destinations, to complement academic work. I met their Chief Executive, Michael Mercieca, late last year and was really impressed by his passion and knowledge. I’d recommend checking out his latest Huff Post blog, for more of his thoughts on the subject.

Whilst programmes are important, I can’t help but think back to the anecdotes above. I wonder if Michael’s most important suggestion is this:

“Most importantly, more business leaders should be encouraged to act as role models and mentors in schools… Instead of dreading entering the world of work for fear of being unemployed and lacking the necessary skills to succeed, young people should be confident and keen to contribute.”

Wouldn’t it be amazing if every young person had access to a long-term, trust coaching relationship – from family, school, volunteering or a professional role – to help them pose and answer the question: “what do I want life and work to be like?”

What would that look like?
What would it take to deliver that?

Wouldn’t it be worth it?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments below, on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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