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The Shameful Squandering of One Million Young Lives

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JOBLESS
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The devastating news that youth unemployment now tops the one million mark makes clear that some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged young people in the UK are paying with their livelihoods for an economic crisis they did not cause.

With two in every five of all 16 and 17-year-olds now out of work, why is their plight being ignored?

Perhaps it's the sense that the tragedy of youth unemployment is just one thorn in a bed of roses. Perhaps it's the result of a welfare system that targets support to those aged eighteen and above - those 'adults' who are more visible, who have the right to vote, and whose voice is therefore heard above the crowd.

Ignoring those who are dismissively termed 'NEET' (not in education, employment or training) is a flawed strategy. Unemployment must be tackled from the root - which means rescuing young people earlier on from the unrelenting grip of long term unemployment and the benefits trap.

This week, Barnardo's has launched a new report called 'Levelling the Playing Field: Achieving Social Mobility for 16 and 17-year-olds'. The report reflects our vision to see a truly level playing field for young people, where social mobility becomes a reality rather than just rhetoric, and where the most disadvantaged are given opportunities to reach their potential, regardless of the circumstances they were born into.

The conclusions of our report were stark: unemployment among 16 and 17-year-olds has almost doubled over the past decade and many of the ring-fenced, centrally allocated budgets that funded services for this age group have been cut or drastically reduced. For each unemployed young person, being out of work for just six months leaves a 'wage scar' that is detrimental to their future earning potential later in life. All this is in addition to the negative social implications young people face when they are not employed, including real damage to self-esteem and confidence.

The challenges of a sluggish economy and failing job market cannot justify the cost and the moral disgrace of leaving an entire generation to become lost in transition. In fact, I believe now more than ever the right time for us to invest in young people. Not just because of the moral argument but because it makes financial sense. Keeping a young person out of work is almost as expensive as it is to create a job for them as each unemployed young person costs public services an average amount of £56,000 over their lifetime. Catching a young person when they are 16 or 17 and engaging them in a programme of alternative education or training is a far better and cheaper alternative that will reap much greater return.

Let me give you an example of how this would work in practice. Ashleigh, 18, is one of more than 3,000 young people Barnardo's helps out of the traps of benefit-dependency and long term unemployment every year.

Her chaotic childhood meant she couldn't concentrate at school. At 15, she decided school wasn't for her, so she dropped out, feeling like a failure. No-one went out of their way to help Ashleigh, and she kept herself to herself for three years, just "hanging around with friends".

When she reached 18, Ashleigh thought she ought to try and go back to college. She says, "I got to a point where I started thinking, 'am I just going to live like this, on benefits, for the rest of my life?'" That was when she decided to get back into education.

Barnardo's helps young people like Ashleigh find alternative education, training and work experience. Ashleigh signed up to a 26 week course with Barnardo's Works, a project in Cornwall that matches young peoples' skills with college courses and jobs. Ashleigh is now enrolled on a three year course with her local college, studying hair and beauty therapy. The voluntary sector's investment into getting Ashleigh back into college benefits everyone - Barnardo's, the public purse, employers and most importantly, Ashleigh.

There are no 'quick fix' solutions and concerted action by government to incentivise the private sector to work with the voluntary sector, and to reach the most disadvantaged teenagers, is the only way to change current trends.

Whilst raising the age of participation in schools to 17 by 2013 and to 18 by 2015 is a step in the right direction, the life chances of 16 and 17-year-olds will only truly be transformed if the Government stays true to its word, working with employers to provide flexible and relevant options that can be tailored to fit young people's needs.

Increasing the amount of apprenticeships available to young people is also commendable - and the announcement of further financial incentives to encourage small businesses to take on apprenticeships looks promising. The real test however will be whether such schemes can truly reach out to the most vulnerable and disadvantaged young people, before they become part of the 300,000 18-year-olds who start out on adult life each year without basic numeracy and literacy skills.

As we lead up to the Chancellor's autumn statement, Barnardo's will be urging the Government to consider that now is not only the time to rebalance the economy but also to level out the playing field for the most disadvantaged 16 and 17-year-olds, who desperately need opportunities to learn and to earn. To have real, long term impact, Government initiatives needs to reach those 16 and 17-year-olds who are furthest from the labour market. Tackling the youth unemployment crisis from the root is the only sufficient response to yesterday's devastating figures. The cost of doing nothing is unacceptable.

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