Opinion

Forget national service – work out what young people actually need. Regardless of how they vote

The Tories' latest on-the-spot bit of policy making misses the bigger picture

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Don’t be young. So far, that is the driving narrative of the election campaign. If you are young, well, tough – give us your vote anyway!

It was not so long ago that there were loud noises about supporting young people who had suffered during lockdown. It was recognised that formative years were being damaged. In the normal run of things younger people would have been out in the world, discovering themselves and their place in it, exploring how relationships work, getting jobs, building up some hope for the future. Instead, they were shuttered. Horizons narrowed.

As lockdowns eased, the Local Government Association published a report calling for children and young people to “be at the heart of plans to rebuild communities”.

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The Sutton Trust, a charity focused on social mobility and life chances, particularly for low and middle income school students, found that 80% of young people said their academic progress had suffered as a result of the pandemic. State school pupils were more than twice as likely to feel they’d fallen behind as private school counterparts. There were many similar documents from many organisations, governmental and third sector.

As a nation, we have not yet fully dealt with the mental health hammering young people took. However, for a moment it seemed that a generation would see something positive come out of the dark days. Get real.

It’s time for national service. Do your duty! Government cuts have decimated numbers of the army, so, see you 18-year-old, you’re going to be in fatigues by sundown! It will be interesting to see how that message is implemented in parts of Northern Ireland.

Such was the speed and resulting fallout mess from the making-it-up-as-he-went-along Sunak GREAT PLAN that it was quickly refocused to be less about the army and more about volunteering over months of weekends. Have a part-time job you need to do and no rich parents behind you? Suck it up. Labour, while making light of it, weren’t exactly strong in their list of alternative plans for younger voters.

As for education, the only idea that seems to have moved headlines was a Tory plan to scrap ‘rip-off’ degrees. I’m not sure what rip-off means here, though the metric for judging these included poor drop-out rates and job prospects. The plan is, instead, to funnel money into creating more apprenticeships. It should be noted that the number of young people starting apprenticeships in England fell from 131,400 in 2015 to 77,700 in 2022-23. The drop-out rate is almost one in two.

It is a positive thing to bolster job specific apprenticeships. But it shouldn’t come at the cost of hammering kids who want a degree. The answer, surely, is to invest better in both, rather than demonising one against the other. And then help the pathways into work improve so that young people – whether leaving school, university or going through an apprenticeship – can find a job with prospects.

Also, let’s start to properly fund second-level education. It’s easy for some politicians to bleat on that kids aren’t prepared for life when they leave school. Well, rather than continuing with the system as it is, overhaul it. Work out what is needed in the contemporary age. Listen to teachers and educational professionals. Make change for the long term, not an election soundbite.

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This kind of thinking requires a level of actually caring for and liking young people. Not to see them a homogenous menace, or, that because they don’t vote for your party, to cast them aside.

This week, among the flurry of first week of election polls, YouGov presented one fascinating piece of voting intention. Under 50s (not ALL in the first flush of youth) went 59% for Labour, 12% for Greens and 8% for Conservatives.

A version of this article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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