The first few years of a child’s life has a major influence on their success later in life from good health, success in school, to their levels of self-esteem and their social skills. These cognitive outcomes vary considerably according to their parents’ socio-economic background and so by the time they reach school, the poorest pupils are 18 percentage points behind their better off peers. Half of that gap can be explained by their prior ability at the age of three, and that gap sticks and explains around a third of the variation in GCSE performance.
Parental involvement in a child’s play and reading is vital in cognitive development, and while in theory poorer children stand to gain most from high-quality early years education, they are least likely to receive it. In the school years it is the differences between pupils found within same schools rather than differences between schools or types of school which matter. It is factors such as behavioural, emotional and special educational needs being most significant, as well as the expectations both of the school and the parents of low income children. There is compelling evidence that careers learning should begin in primary school, as between the ages of 9 and 13 children begin to narrow down their career options as they become aware of perceived constraints from what they see around them.
Many young people, even those from disadvantaged backgrounds, leave school with good educational attainment but this provides no guarantee of good employment outcomes. Less affluent young people with good GCESs are less likely to enrol in post-16 qualifications that would serve them well in the labour market or gain them entry into a top university. A third are more likely than their better off peers to drop out of education at 16. Young people from black and Asian Muslim communities are more likely to be unemployed and face social immobility later in life, even when they succeed at school and at university.
Careers information, advice and guidance is important in strengthening this transition; it provides access to information which transcends the knowledge of their social networks and brokers access to networks beyond the ones that young people typically have access to. It helps them to understand how education links to their career goals, challenging their assumptions about themselves, builds ambition, helps turn those aspirations into practical plans and help young people to remain resilient when faced with setbacks. However, the quality of careers provision in schools can be described as patchy at best. A recent survey from the Careers and Enterprise Company shows that on average, secondary schools achieve less than two out of the eight benchmarks they are expected deliver.
While it is important that we strive to give young people the best possible start in their careers, we must also remember that two-thirds of the 2030 workforce is already in employment, so adults are important and so is the here and now.
The labour market is going through a process of polarisation, characterised by strong job growth at both ends, and a decline in 'middle' level skilled occupations driven by technological changes and globalisation. We must however, be careful not to exaggerate there is still a healthy replacement demand in these occupations as older people leave the workforce. But the nature of these jobs will change considerably, particularly around technology, affecting a far greater range of jobs than previous technological advances; posing real questions about how we can make adult workers more resilient to these changes.
While there appears to be an abundance of low skilled and low waged jobs which has boosted employment levels, this is widely recognised as a double-edge sword. It has protected us from a jobless recession, but living standards have taken a hit with increasing levels of in-work poverty leading to an ever increasing in-work benefits bill. While the introduction of and increases to the National Living Wage will help alleviate the problem, there are structural problems in our economy and at this lower end of the labour market hindering the country’s productivity, holding down wages and eroding living standards. It is a problem best tackled at both ends of the labour market by helping individuals to access new skills and to pursue alternative career paths, whilst helping firms to take action to improve their productivity and at the same time enhance their ability to create better quality jobs and pay better wages.
Meanwhile, historic high levels of employment have hidden deep-seated problems which lock out the disabled, those with poor mental health and those who live in deprived areas from the labour market. In response, old models of employability have been found wanting; but where models work in partnership with employers to create work experience opportunities, that use job brokerage and offer in-work support, they produce better results.
Local government is ideally placed to convene such strategies working in partnership with others across the public sector, education sector and the business and wider community.