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We are thinking big to improve opportunities for young people

Professor Zahir Irani, Chairman of the Bradford Economic Recovery Board and Deputy Vice Chancellor at the University of Bradford
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As Prime Minister, Tony Blair coined one of the most memorable phrases in British politics when he said that his Government’s top priority was “education, education, education”. As Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bradford, I too believe in the transformative power of learning.

But what Blair’s 2001 speech missed – and what successive Governments have too – is how to join up the dots and to give young people the best information about aligning education with the career that’s right for them.

Schools and colleges should provide high-quality, impartial careers advice to 12 to 18-year-old pupils. These discussions should be inspirational and informative and provide insights to workforce data/ trends. Young people should be helped to think about their future, be made aware of careers that they perhaps hadn’t considered and receive advice about starting their working life.

I don’t doubt that this happens, but the high standards we should expect for all is not delivered consistently, evidenced by educational inequalities. Too many students are not made aware of the breadth of careers and not encouraged to be bold. Society loses out as a result of not accessing diverse talent.

The Department for Education’s (DfE) 2021 white paper Skills for Jobs: Lifelong learning for opportunity and growth raised concerns about careers advice for all ages:

“There is no single place you can go to get government-backed, comprehensive careers information” it noted. Young people turn to family and friends for careers advice, but the advice they receive is influenced by peoples’ experiences, biases and inequalities.

As the UK gets back its feet post-Covid, it’s even more important that young people find jobs in all sectors, to play their role in getting the economy humming again. The Bradford District Economic Recovery Plan is our path to a more prosperous future, and bridging the gap between employers and schools and colleges is vital. Not also forgetting adult learners, that vital part of the working population that upskills, reskills and redeploys.

The Bradford Manufacturing Weeks programme has been highly successful since its launch five years ago and gives 14 to 18-year-olds an opportunity to learn about the fantastic careers in our manufacturing businesses. The programme this year runs from 4 to 15 October, and again features many outstanding manufacturing firms.

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But if we are to dramatically improve opportunities for young people, we need to think big and differently. Our recovery plan identifies growth sectors such as technology, the green economy and culture and health. Building on our traditional strengths in food manufacturing, engineering, chemicals, digital technologies, energy and utilities and incorporating emerging sectors, we should develop an expanded, year-round programme of awareness raising-events. I want to see Bradford Technology Weeks; Culture Weeks; and Foods Weeks. Businesses need to play their part and make young people aware of the careers on their doorstep.

One route is through Industrial Centres of Excellence, which enable students to explore different careers and prepare for their next steps, whether it is sixth form, college, apprenticeship and perhaps university. Bradford ICEs operate year-round, and offer 78 pathways for young people to pursue across 15 key sectors of the district’s economy.

These include advanced manufacturing and engineering; built environment; business; computing, science and environmental technologies; creative industries and public services and law. We are making a real difference in Bradford, but national action is needed, so that we can use scale and momentum to bounce forward, at speed in an ever more competitive world.

The Government has pledged to improve careers and employment information on the National Careers Service website and give a bigger role to the Careers & Enterprise Company – a body which delivers careers support in England’s schools and colleges. This is a start but falls short of the steps needed.

We need to take this issue more seriously and re-prioritise. A joint task force between the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the DfE could be formed to look at careers advice and implement a national framework linking business and schools and colleges.

This could be achieved though establishing local integrated careers and employment services. Doing so will better local align workforce trends and opportunities with supply. It will cost, but the social and economic costs of not giving young people every opportunity for a meaningful future will be greater. We need our economy to be healthy, which is only possible by having people in the right place, with the right skills doing the right thing.

Education should be the priority of government. But we also need local and national action, joining up the dots so that young people know where learning can take them now, and in the future.

Professor Zahir Irani, Chairman of the Bradford Economic Recovery Board and Deputy Vice Chancellor at the University of Bradford

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