Sun, Apr 12, 2009 - Page 9 News List

The UK's approach to education risks creating a ‘lost generation’


The recession has been an equal opportunities destroyer. It began with a culling of City of London financiers and moved out to take the livelihoods of British builders, shop assistants and assembly line workers. Only the UK’s public sector seems safe, but it will surely be shredded when the country has to meet its debts.

The crisis is showing as little respect for education as occupation. One-third of the unemployed have A-levels or degrees and must be wondering what happened to their teachers’ promises that hard work brought its own rewards. Nor does the old north-south divide offer protection. If anything, unemployment is rising faster in Swindon, Exeter and Reading than Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester.

The majority of people will work through this recession as they worked through all others. Because they cannot know in advance that they will be safe, however, fear of unemployment is growing into a universal emotion.

I would blow the dust off cliches about us all being in this together were the young not suffering excessively. They are always the first victims of a recession because employers respond to a collapse in demand by taking the humane decision to freeze recruitment rather than make their existing workers redundant. This time around, though, the young stand out because they have had the bad luck to be the children of the mini baby boom of the late Eighties. The Great Crash, as I think we can safely call it, has coincided with a rush of new workers into a vanishing jobs market.

From 1980 to 2000, the absolute and relative size of the UK’s 16 to 24 age group declined. Since 2000, it has grown from 6.4 million (10.8 percent of the population) in 2000 to 7.4 million (12.1 percent) in 2007.

To get an instinctive feeling for their predicament, imagine how different British culture and society would have been if the first children of the postwar baby boom had reached maturity in the mid-60s to find collapsing banks and mass unemployment. We would have heard considerably less over the decades about growing up with rock’n’roll and much more about growing up on the dole.

David Blanchflower of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee wants an emergency program to keep young Britons learning. He says the government should raise the school leaving age to 18 at once, invest in subsidies for apprenticeships and for university places and pay for a large increase in the number of teachers and work placements.

Blanchflower is about the only economist to emerge from the crash with his reputation enhanced. While his colleagues fretted about the illusory peril of inflation, he warned that Britain faced a second depression unless it tore up the rule book and recognized that a national emergency was underway.

I suspect even his high reputation will not be enough to carry his proposals through. Against him is the cost, which will be enormous. Blanchflower says the UK cannot afford not to pay and need to worry about the price of unemployment and rising crime. But even if politicians are prepared to throw money at job creation, they may think they would do better to direct resources to workers in their forties and fifties who lose their job and cannot find another. It seems natural to argue that the young will pull through because they have many years ahead of them to sort out their lives.

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