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Reshaping the Education System is our Collective Challenge

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From this morning, young people will begin to feel the full impact of this Government's education policies.

As A Level results are handed out, tens of thousands could miss out on a University place and will need to take agonising decisions about whether to reapply next year and face an extra £15,000 bill. And, next week, the publication of GCSE results will make a world without the Education Maintenance Allowance a painful reality. Some 16 year-olds might have to take a part-time job to subsidise studies; some might have to stay local rather than travel to the college of their choice; others might drop out of education altogether.

All this comes as the country is gripped by a polarised debate about the current generation and its prospects in the wake of last week's riots. If we are not careful, the language and tone of this debate could lead to a growing disconnect between young people and the political process.

The Prime Minister has said he is reviewing every aspect of Government policy in the wake of the riots. That statement is welcome. But David Cameron must mean what he says. On education, it is not enough for him to retreat to the Tory comfort zone of talking only about school discipline - important though that is. He must now have the courage to look again at the impact of unpopular policies on EMA and Higher Education, as well as the devastating cuts to the Careers Service. He must also ask what his Education Secretary has to say to the 50% or more of young people not planning to go to University.

I do not believe for one second that any of the young people who rioted did so because of the loss of EMA or higher tuition fees. But these policies have the potential to increase the number of young people, particularly in our less well-off areas, who do not feel part of society and are not on a constructive path in life.

On the whole, recent generations knew university was a realistic possibility - and affordable - if they met the required standard. For those planning to enter work, trainee schemes operated by large industries were in much more plentiful supply and entry requirements for them were well understood.

The truth is that young people are facing a much more challenging and competitive world than the one which faced my generation of politicians when we left formal education in the late 80s and early 90s.

The demise of large industry in many parts of the country has left a world with less certainty and structure. Today's school and college leavers are likely to have at least 10 different jobs in their working life. Unlike their parents and grandparents, they are more likely to work in smaller companies and will need to be all-rounders, able to adapt quickly to new situations. It is more likely that they will be employers as well as employees.

Our collective challenge as a society is to reshape an education system so that it prepares young people for this changed world and gives every young person a path to success within it. My worry is that Government policy is going in the opposite direction and making things worse.

Demand for university places has surged this year as many students decide against a gap year to avoid the higher fees that come in from 2012. The situation is made worse because, alongside this surge in demand, the government has cut the number of university places.

As they consider what to study and where, who is helping these young people? Who is giving them an insight into the professional world, helping them make contacts and making sure they can access the information to make the right choices for the future?

For many young people their families do this, providing role models, setting up work experience, helping with applications. Others don't have this support at home and need to depend upon the Careers Service. In the current context, with youth unemployment pushing one million, the Government's presiding over a melt-down in England's Careers Service is truly unforgivable.

Preventing a lost generation and wasting the talents of our young people will be one of the great challenges of our times.

The British Promise that Ed Milliband has spoken of - where children have greater life chances than their parents - will only be a reality if we face future challenges, and work to instil every young person with the knowledge and attributes they will need to succeed in the modern world.