Muppets and manifestos

Graham Duxbury
Friday, November 29, 2019

For some families it’s Home Alone, for others The Polar Express. For me you still can’t beat A Christmas Carol as the film that turns the sofa into a place to sink into the season. Odd really given Dickens’ original intent was to produce a tract excoriating the capitalist system for its maltreatment of children, a polemic against ignorance and want wrapped in a tale about personal responsibility and redemption. Not that you’d know that from watching the Muppets’ version.

We should bear this intent in mind when reviewing the Christmas lists contained in the election manifestos. As a result of hard work behind the scenes by leading players in the sector, the parties have been in a bidding war attempting to outdo each other with the billions of pounds being pledged for youth services, youth clubs, mental health support and further education. And this is on top of the ‘new money’ already being pumped into the system from the Youth Endowment Fund and Youth Futures Foundation.

As children get older, of course, they get wise to the fact that Santa won’t bring them everything on the list, and that what appears under the tree is determined by the economic realities facing their parents, but even partial fulfilment of the promises being made will be a positive step forward. It also means we can concentrate our thinking on how to use resources to deliver maximum impact.

It could be argued that one of the reasons all parties are committing to more social spending (over and above the obvious electoral one) is because the global economic outlook is far from rosy – a forecast made gloomier domestically by Brexit uncertainty. When the labour market tightens, it tightens most for young people as older workers ‘trade down’ to accept jobs which are normally taken up by new entrants and those leaving education get trapped in the ‘no job - no experience - no job’ cycle.

This means we will need more programmes that support young people to cope with complex lives but that also provide a ladder of opportunity helping them enter and progress in employment. This should include learning from schemes like the Future Jobs Fund, which recognised the need to create temporary jobs for young people to give them the experience and confidence needed to compete in the open market.

As we think about reinvesting in the sector, then, we should consider how we better connect the disciplines of youth worker and employment coach - knowing when to support young people to maintain stability and when to push them out of their comfort zone. An evaluation of the Progress programme in the West Midlands – managed by Groundwork UK with funding from the European Social Fund and The National Lottery Community Fund – highlights this bridge as being fundamental to success. It states:

"[Young people] were able to reflect back on how the coach had worked… at a pace that was right for them, while pushing them to try new things and constantly taking steps forward."

If work is one priority, then surely another should be the purpose of that work. More big manifesto pledges are aimed at tackling the acute crisis in care and the growing sense of crisis around climate change. In both areas, part of the problem is a lack of capacity or skills in the workforce to bring about change as rapidly as we need to. This needs action at both ends of the supply and demand pipeline – helping employers create attractive roles through wage subsidies and clearer career pathways while supporting FE and youth service providers to motivate and prepare young people for the opportunities available.

When Dickens published his tale of Scrooge and the Cratchit family in December 1843, his motivation was to end the exploitation of children revealed by the previous year’s Children's Employment Commission. We can only hope that when manifesto wishlists are converted into a real programme for government they have a similarly lasting impact on the circumstances, education and employment prospects of this generation of young people.

Graham Duxbury is chief executive of Groundwork

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