Colleges are the obvious one-stop-shop for re-engaging disenfranchised young people after Covid and bridging the UK’s skills gaps, says Karen Johnson
It’s a little over three years since the beginning of a wave of lockdowns to combat the Covid pandemic. By now many of us are back to business as usual. But for a whole generation of young people whose education and early career opportunities have been stifled the journey has not been quite so smooth.
According to a recent report from City & Guilds, there are over 800,000 young people in the UK who are not in education, employment or training (NEET). While this figure is shocking to some, we educators know all too well that young people have been among the hardest hit by the devastating aftershocks of that period.
In response, we need nothing less than a seismic shift in how we think about education. It’s no longer a case of retaining our students, but of reintegrating them and offering them a much-needed second chance.
Implementing programmes nationally to capture the nearly 16 per cent young people currently classified as NEET is not without its complications. The government’s spring budget recognised the role that economically inactive people could play in filling the 1.3 million vacancies in our economy today. However, consistent underfunding means that existing services and programmes are already under immense strain, and not operating at the scale required to solve the problem.
One such programme is NEET re-engagement programme at Leeds City College, which aims to improve young people’s skills while helping them prepare for their next steps. Further education colleges are unique in their ability to provide a ‘one-stop shop’ for careers advice, pastoral support, education and work experience. Other organisations offer some of these services, but it’s rare to find one that has it all.
Our bespoke programme helps students aged 16 to 24 to develop skills in essential subjects, particularly maths and English, all while engaging them in enrichment activities and supporting them with progression.
The move to online learning during the pandemic deepened the chasm of access to quality education. For some of our most vulnerable young people, the amount of lost learning was substantial, leaving them wholly unprepared for further education or employment. In crafting and delivering our programme, we focus on removing such barriers.
We need a seismic shift in how we think about education
It’s not just in the classroom that young people are facing struggles. Mental health charity, Young Minds reported in 2021 that 67 per cent believed that the pandemic will have a long-term negative effect on their mental health. Issues of low self-confidence have been directly linked to long periods of social isolation; I’ve had countless young people tell me they simply don’t feel up to the challenge of employment.
One of the young people on our programme had always dreamed of pursuing a career in creative arts, but was too anxious of being around so many people after lockdowns to pursue their ambition. This example is repeated everywhere across the country.
We often think of young people as highly social, but in reality the thought of stepping back into a classroom for the first time in over two years has been undeniably overwhelming. We are fortunate enough to have a smaller facility that can host our programme, and have implemented shorter session times to make them more manageable.
But by far the most common barrier is finance, with the rising cost of living meaning many young people are undertaking temporary, part-time work at the expense of their studies. As part of the programme, students are offered meal cards and free bus passes to minimise cost and support with their responsibilities outside of the programme.
Even in its infancy, I’ve seen this programme make a real difference to those who had nowhere else to turn, and with 14 new referrals already this month, it’s clear there’s demand. Like many others across the sector, we are proud of the work we’re doing and we know more needs to be done.
Put simply, the UK’s labour market cannot afford to disregard the potential of so many. Colleges are a natural place to invest in the multi-faceted work this challenge requires, and failure to reengage those who do not currently have the resources to fulfil their potential constitutes a huge missed opportunity for policy makers.