GREG ROBERTS is an apprentice accountant and youth campaigner in north east Derbyshire. In June he spoke to the ILP’s day school on Unbalanced Britain about life for young people in these austere times.
Despite being born and spending half of my early childhood in Sheffield, I have, for the past eight years, lived on the border of Sheffield and Derbyshire. I went to school at Eckington Secondary School and did my A levels in mathematics, additional mathematics and physics at the school’s sixth form.
Following a lengthy and difficult period of decision-making after I turned 18, I decided not to attend university and am now an accounts apprentice having just finished my first year studying for the Association of Accounting Technicians qualification.
In 2008, I first visited the youth centre in Eckington, where I met a group of people who I am still proud to call my friends. These people all have learning difficulties and some are physically disabled as well. I have been volunteering at the Monday Club for almost six years now, and through it I met Eckington’s (now) only part-time youth worker, a woman called Jane Marsh.
Jane, along with a couple of colleagues and the parish council of Eckington, created a young people’s forum called the Eckington UFI (spelt U-F-I; it’s supposed to be text-speak, apparently). The group has been running for around 10 years now and, as a proud member of the third-generation of UFI members, I am currently chair – a position I’ve held for three years.
All that may seem an irrelevant anecdote but hopefully it will add a little background and context to what I am about to say.
When I was writing this, I spent a long time deciding which way to tackle the subject. In the end, I’ve decided to split my presentation into two.
First, I’m going to talk about my perspective with regards to the future of youth services, and activities for young people to do in their spare time, at school, in school holidays, and so on. Then I’m going to talk about my experiences in the world of work, and the post-16 (and post-18) options open to young people who are choosing and starting a career.
Saving youth services
In early 2012, the Eckington UFI group were made aware of plans by the then-Conservative Derbyshire County Council to close in excess of 40 youth centres around the county, putting approximately 160 part-time youth worker jobs in jeopardy. The council wished to make the youth service voluntary.
We acknowledge that volunteers play a massive part in a community – they are an invaluable cog in the way the country works. However, we felt, and I still feel, that a job as sensitive as youth work should be undertaken by professionals who are trained and paid to do the job. The youth workers we had in Eckington had been around long enough to know up to three generations of a family. That sort of community knowledge and passion is something which needed to stay.
We decided to fight. We didn’t just do it for the youth workers whose jobs were in jeopardy; we did it for the young people who would miss out on evenings in the youth centres, and miss out on projects that helped them stay off the streets. With the help of some senior members of the Labour Party in Derbyshire (among other people), we managed to get just over 16,000 people to sign a petition to retain the “current directly provided universal youth service” – more than double the 7,500 we needed to spark a council debate.
The meeting at County Hall in Matlock was full of ups and downs. At the end of it, however, we held on to a youth service and, possibly more importantly, to youth centres in Derbyshire that we can be proud of, something many counties have lost. However, the whole issue remains a touchy subject as, even now, there are plans to change the youth service in Derbyshire.
The area I associate myself with most closely is Eckington, a wonderful place for many reasons. For the last 25 years, a project has run during the school summer holidays named the ‘Fun Scheme’, when the area’s youth workers team up with the police to take young people on activity days. They go on day trips to the seaside, go laser-questing, to theme parks, and much more. Unfortunately, the Fun Scheme will not be taking place this year, a symptom of our times of austerity.
Things are changing for young people in almost every conceivable way. They are losing activities and youth services, ways to get involved in the community, and freedom to make their own choices. It is easy to pin the blame for most of these changes on shrinking budgets, and young people do blame lack of money – it gives them a focus for their discontent with politics and the way the world works. Sometimes (most of the time), I am there with them. But, unfortunately, I feel times have changed for young people, and this is partly to blame also.
I started secondary school a mere seven-and-a-half years ago, but the mood seemed a lot different then. People my age were interested in getting involved. They didn’t necessarily want to go to school (in fact, I think it would be difficult to find any who did), but we got stuck in. We were interested in learning. We seemed to realise that if we just stuck it out for these few years at school we would gain the knowledge to do things later on in life – getting a job being the most obvious.
We seemed to have a fantastic work ethic; at least, my year seemed to – I’m sure different schools and classes were different. We were interested in the way the world works. I have never been, and probably never will be, massively interested in politics – party politics, that is. But I am interested in how things work, how systems work in society and how you can get things done.
Alas, I feel that those times have changed and young people starting school now are disillusioned and, because of this, they either act-out, or they breeze through school, getting by nicely, but then don’t know what to do with themselves because the world all seems so complicated post-16 and post-18. What do I do? Why do I do it? What’s the best option? What’s going to get me the most money?
I think I know one of the reasons why.
Work, college and apprenticeships
In 2008 a law passed which meant by 2015 all young people would have to stay in education or training (at least part-time) until they were 18. The aim was to cut youth unemployment, and to prevent young people leaving education without qualifications or transferrable on-the-job skills.
Obviously, it is too early to tell whether this has achieved its aims, although I am optimistic. It can be frustrating, however, for the youth of today. I think we can all agree that some young people are designed for academia, and some are not. For example, if you gave me a couple of simultaneous equations and asked me to calculate ‘x’ – no problem. Ask me to fix a fault on my car? I’d have to call the mechanic. Thankfully, for me, the mechanic is my dad or my brother, so it doesn’t always hurt my pocket as much as it might.
It feels as though the changes to the system have shone a light onto the apprenticeship route. It gives young people an option after GCSEs – to either stay in full-time education or to take a step into a more job-like environment. The 2008 Bill included a “statutory right for every suitably qualified young person to obtain an apprenticeship”. Maybe I’m biased, as I am an apprentice myself, but I feel that work-based learning and integration into a company and work habits is priceless. It’s certainly something that £9,000 a year does not buy you.
This is a serious sticking point, though. The Independent newspaper reported that last year just short of half a million students were accepted onto university courses. That’s nearly £4.5 billion in tuition fees alone. The first year after the rise in tuition fees to £9,000 saw a drop of 15,000 in applicants, although this past year saw the highest number of applications on record (ironically, smashing the record from only two years previously, the year before the rise in fees).
Now, I know there are certain political arguments both for and against the rise in tuition fees, but I know from having applied for university only a year ago that the massive cost and almost irrecoverable debt of higher education is leaving prospective students disillusioned with university as a prospect, and with politics the same.
Let us think about this realistically, the way I like to – with numbers. When I was searching for university courses during my time in sixth form I decided I would love to study a course named ‘Actuarial Sciences’. This course included study of mathematics and risk. It incorporated gambling (of sorts), insurance, odds and statistics… right up my street. Having said that, the course at Warwick University I selected as my first choice was a slightly different one. Unfortunately, I was unsuccessful and so I set my sights on the Actuarial course at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland.
The course was to last four years, so that’s £36,000 before we have started. After speaking to friends who have gone to university, it seems that the average cost for accommodation is around £90 per week. If you stay from September to June, that’s about 43 weeks, so just short of £4,000 a year and £16,000 for four years. Let’s discount food and drink (and even more drink, it seems), and say that a four-year stay at university would cost around £50,000. That is the amount of debt that hangs over young people as they start a career.
Everyone is told that you only pay nine per cent of what you earn over £21,000, and the debt is wiped clean after 30 years, but who wants to carry that sort of problem with them? Not me. You have to consider that when you’re in sixth form or college, and people are shouting these percentages and costs at you, it spins you out. The only thing you are left with is the figure ‘£50,000’ whirring around in your head. It puts a massive number of people off, including yours truly.
So I started researching apprenticeships. I found that you can study for a qualification at college on day release while working full-time in an office with experienced, like-minded people. Yes, it will take me around two years longer to achieve the same qualification as if I had gone to university, but I don’t come out with massive debt and I get paid a wage. Where do I sign up?
Of course, there is a slight catch. The current minimum wage for an apprentice between the ages of 16 and 18, or 19 and over when in their first year, is £2.68. Based on a 37½ hour week, Monday-Friday 9am-5pm, that’s £100 per week. I hope you won’t feel I’m being too unsubtle when I say that is criminal.
I would estimate that nine out of 10 apprentices do the same (or very similar) work to a fully-paid member of staff. Similarly, I feel some, if not most employers see apprentices as a cheap form of labour – and why not? The opportunity is there to exploit so they take advantage of it. People have said to me that at 16 you can’t drive; you probably do not pay rent or board (although you might); and you cannot drink or smoke (legally), so what do you need the money for?
I say, what does that matter? A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work is what, in my opinion, should be implemented into the apprenticeship scheme. Yes, people don’t take into consideration the money you save on tuition fees, and the fact that you are given a free education on-the-job and on the course, but when you’re deciding on your immediate future at 16 or 18 years of age, sometimes these things aren’t as plainly obvious and clear-cut as they may seem. Young people are being driven away from apprenticeships because they don’t pay enough in the short-term.
So, if young people are driven away from university because it costs too much, and there are (most of the time) other ways to achieve the same career goals, and yet apprenticeships don’t seem appealing because they pay peanuts, then where do young people stand?
That is the real problem. Young people themselves do not know what the future holds for them, individually, let alone collectively.
A report of the first workshop in the Unbalanced Britain series can be read here.
The second workshop in the Unbalanced Britain series is likely to be held this autumn. Subjects, speakers and details will be announced on this website in the coming weeks.
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Barry Winter’s contribution, ‘Unbalanced Britain: Corporate Power and our Me-Based Culture’ can be read here.
Articles based on Ernie Jacques’s contributions to the Sheffield workshop will be published here in the coming weeks.