For Young People Let Down by Labour, the Greens Offer a Voice of Hope

2014-06-23-YoungGreensprotest-thumbMembers of the Young Green Party out in force at the March Against Austerity on 21st June 2014

The term used by the government to describe young people like me is ‘NEET’ – not in education, employment or training. Official estimates put the total number of 16-24 year-old NEETs at just shy of 1 million, 13.5% of the age group. That’s 1 million young people coming out of university, college, and school with no salary with which to pay off their inordinate debts or pay for household basics.

NEETs like myself feel as though we’re running up against a brick-wall. We have spent fourteen years in education only to enter a job market which doesn’t seem to value anything we have been taught. What few jobs there are for people without a degree or significant specialist training all too often want to see experience in the workplace, something which none of us have because we can’t get into employment to begin with. It’s a vicious, spiralling cycle.

So I find it galling when Labour leader Ed Miliband suggests that the solution is to take away the little money that the young and unemployed have simply because they lack qualifications. His proposal to remove benefits from 18-21 year olds who don’t take-up training towards a Level 3 (equivalent to an A-Level) qualification seems to be premised on the idea that gaining this one qualification will suddenly mean employers will be throwing themselves at our feet – and that we haven’t already been doing our absolute best to find work.

Training is hugely impractical for many people. Without the Educational Maintenance Allowance, a financial lifeline that was previously available to all 16-19 year-olds who were in full-time training or education and had a low household income, training is just a stretch of time in which you have no money coming in. When you’re struggling to put food on the table or pay for a bus trip to the jobcentre, it simply isn’t conceivable that you will sign-up for months of training without an income.

Even if you do take the plunge and attend and complete the course, this isn’t going to change the fact that there is such a desperate shortage of available jobs. Not that Labour seem to care. Ed Miliband’s latest announcement was nothing more than a cynical effort to court Tory voters by appearing “tough” on benefits by pedalling the lazy rhetoric that anyone who is unemployed is in that position by their own volition. I don’t know about you but poverty and financial stress was not the future I’d dreamed of when I was at school. No matter what Labour may say, the number of jobs on offer isn’t suddenly going to rapidly increase just because a few more of us NEETs have attended college and gained an A-Level in English Literature.

The government and opposition’s rhetoric does achieve one thing however: it creates a feeling of complete worthlessness amongst those of us that our out of work. Jobcentres are cold and the process is geared-around finding any job, not one that is meaningful and meets your needs. It’s a box-ticking exercise that takes us nowhere. So long as jobseekers are shifted off JSA for a few months onto a minimum wage part-time job before churning back into the system, government policy can be said to be “working” and George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith can give themselves complementary pats on the back. Whilst NEETs spend each day trawling the internet and newspapers for jobs, sending out as many applications as we can, the message we get back from the government is that we are to blame for our unemployment and inability to take our first step onto the career ladder.

Thankfully, there is an alternative message and approach to the one being put forwards by Ed Miliband. That alternative is a system which is designed to support young people so that they can achieve their ambitions rather than forcing them into a lifetime of low paid work. That’s the vision of the Green Party. It’s why the Greens are committed to making the minimum wage a living wage, so that work pays enough for you to build a life-around and support your own personal development. It’s why we as a party are committed to introducing a Citizen’s Income, separating benefits from means-testing so that work is not a necessity but an enjoyment, or is at least rewarding. It’s why we are committed to the reintroduction of the Educational Maintenance Allowance, the removal of tuition fees, and bringing down other barriers to education.

With Labour joining the Coalition in supporting the propagation of their depressing, victimising message, will you consider the alternative message being offered by the Greens?


Let’s Get Heretical on Education: Competition Has Failed

natalie+bennettIt’s time we talked about education.

Not just about the disasters of free schools, the horrors of stressful, damaging Ofsted inspections that produce random results (as the organisation itself has just acknowledged), the huge workload being carried by teachers and pupils, but about the basics – the philosophy behind our education system and indeed education itself, and its place in society.

I’m going to begin by quoting the Open University’s Ron Glatter, who has argued: “international experience indicates that emphasising choice and competition to drive improvements is not effective”.

That makes sense when you strip away the ideology and think about what competition between schools means – the driving force of Michael Gove’s free schools approach. If you have competition between widget factories, then some of them will fail. That will be pretty bad for the workers, but we might assume that if there’s a fixed need for widgets they’ll get a job at a more successful plant. So no great problem for society.

But turn that model to schools, and what happens when a school closes down? Pupils have their education disrupted – disastrous in our age-driven, rigid system, that means they can’t just go back to catch up. Pupils in neighbouring schools see their education disrupted too, as new groups are levered into their existing structures. Local areas lose what should be their heart – the place where parents get together, build organisations and build community spirit.

Schools are encouraged not to share good techniques and approaches, but hug them close – or at best to to try to sell them to other schools. And they’re encouraged to sneak sideways into selection – ensuring by hook or by crook that pupils who aren’t going to be an ornament to their results aren’t on their rolls at test time.

So let’s start with one heretical thought: competition is disastrous in our education system and should be abandoned as a guiding principle. Instead what we need is cooperation – an informal co-operative of pupils, teachers, parents, communities working together to help achieve the best possible outcome for each pupil.

Then we come to what education is for: and I couldn’t argue with the 1988 Education Reform Act, one of the few in our history to explain what schools should do: “promote the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils … and prepare pupils … for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of adult life.”

But that’s not what schools and teachers are being judged on now. The test result is king. Sat results, league tables, are what heads hold or lose their jobs by, and they’re forced, whether they like it or not, to pass that pressure down to their staff.

Look at the turnout at the recent elections, particularly among the young, and hear when many explain they don’t vote because they don’t know enough, and you have to acknowledge that citizenship education is certainly failing, and if we think about skills that everyone needs: cooking and nutritional knowledge, financial management, sex and relationship education, gardening even … few would claim that many schools are providing these essentials, let alone more abstract but essential life skills like problem-solving, emotional resilience, and effective communication.

So my second heretical proposal: let’s cut the testing, stop spending time on endless drilling for Sats and other exams, let’s ensure that our children get a broad, healthy education for life.

Original article published in Huffington Post

Based on a speech delivered on the afternoon of June 1st at the How The Light Gets In Festival 2014 in Hay-on-Wye

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