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The importance of qualifications as we look to equip young people for the future

Ben Gadsby is Head of Policy and Research at Impetus

Five key areas of vital importance for the #YouthJobsGaps 

Almost a year ago I stood in front of a fairly sizable audience at Park Plaza hotel at Westminster Bridge to launch the eighth report in a series of Impetus research reports on youth employment called the Youth Jobs Gap series.

It’s been quite a year.

That event would have been genuinely illegal for most of the past 10 months.

Some panellists talked about the low levels of youth unemployment.

I remember we’d all heard of “coronavirus” but none of us knew anything about spike proteins.

Now of course the world is a very different place.

And it would be easy to assume that this makes most of what we learned from the Youth Jobs Gap research series a bit moot.

But the opposite is the case.

As we start to look optimistically towards the future, and think about reopening the economy, we need to remember: there were significant challenges for many young people even before the pandemic.

The sentiment to “build back better” and ”rebuild our country” has merit – but it’s only achievable if we understand the challenges that existed before, that have been exacerbated since.

At Impetus, we’ve summarised the key points from the Youth Jobs Gap series in a short animation:

There are five things that stand out to me as being of vital importance as we turn our attention to young people in the future:

1. Qualifications matter. 

We found that young people with better qualifications are much less likely to be NEET (not in education, employment or training). In some respects, this finding is obvious – but the impact of better qualifications is bigger than you might think. While 29% of young people without level 2 qualifications (GCSE equivalent) by age 18 were NEET, only 15% of young people with those qualifications were NEET.

For young people with level 3 qualifications (A level equivalent), this figure drops to 8%. Each extra step up the qualifications ladder halves your chances of being NEET.

This speaks to the importance of levelling up education as we look to equip young people for the future.

2. Background matters

Unfortunately, your background matters too. Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are 50% more likely to be NEET than their similarly qualified but better-off peers.

We already know young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to get good qualifications than their better-off peers. So it’s no surprise that we found they were twice as likely to be NEET. But for all the value of qualifications, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are still much more likely to be NEET even if they do get the qualifications.

To support these groups, it’s not enough to focus on education – there are other issues too. This will be obvious to many people working with young people day in, day out in FE. I don’t think it’s as clear to policymakers.

3. Location matters

When we look at “levelling up” across the country, regional variation is much less important than you’d think – because it’s even more local differences that are a bigger factor. With the support of KPMG and London Councils, we took deep dives into different English regions and found that that the variation between different local authorities within a region is much bigger than the variation between different regions.

While the differences between the regions are small, differences within regions are large – a young person educated in Sandwell is twice as likely to be NEET as a young person educated in Warwickshire. And there are big differences between different parts of combined authority areas too. To tackle youth unemployment, it doesn’t make sense to target efforts just at a regional level – we need to focus at a much more local level, as MPs would no doubt agree.

And most young people who are NEET have been NEET for the longer term. Indeed, three quarters of NEET young people have been NEET for at least 12 months. There’s often an assumption that lots of people aren’t NEET for very long and don’t need much help to move back into work, education or training. But many of these young people will require more intensive support, which is an essential investment if we don’t want to write off hundreds of thousands of young people.

5. Measuring success matters

Finally, we have new ways to measure the success of interventions tackling these problems. The findings outlined here take advantage of the government’s Longitudinal Educational Outcomes dataset (LEO).

As well as looking at big data for millions of young people across the country, you can also drill down to look at outcomes for specific groups, and use that as a basis for comparison in a way that’s been possible in sectors like schools and health for years.

For example, we benchmarked the charity Resurgo, one of our longstanding charity partners, and found that the young people they worked with were twice as likely to move into work, education or training as NEET young people more generally. We need to make these kinds of comparisons more common to ensure every young person gets the best support they need to succeed.

These lessons speak of youth unemployment as a complex and misunderstood problem even before the pandemic hit.

With young people worst hit by the crisis, it only amplifies the need to understand and act on what is going on.

One day soon some bits of the world will go back to normal. It will once again be legal to present research findings at the Park Plaza hotel at Westminster Bridge.

But we all have to hope not everything goes back to the way it was before.

Ben Gadsby is Head of Policy and Research at Impetus, a charity supporting disadvantaged young people to succeed, and an Associate Fellow at Bright Blue, an independent think tank and pressure group for liberal conservatism. 

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