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Benjamin Zephaniah

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Youth Unemployment: I Wanted to Use Poetry to Speak for Myself

Posted: 31/08/2012 01:00

As someone who was kicked out of school at the age of 13, and left school unable to read or write properly with no qualifications to my name, I know a lot of people believed I would amount to nothing. In many ways I got lucky and I'm proud to say I proved those people wrong.

With almost three million people unemployed including a million young people, it means wasted talent and loss of hope. In areas like Tower Hamlets- with the highest levels of child poverty in the country - this is so much more apparent. With some 7,540 16-18 year olds not in education, employment or training (NEETS) and high graduate unemployment, these are young people who could excel if only they were given the right opportunities and a chance.

This is not the lazy generation that many make out. Many are ambitious and have the talent to go on to do great things but they need the support to get there.

That's one of the reasons why I'm so passionate about my role as patron for youth charity Futureversity. It has teamed up with London-based Network Housing Group to drive forward its innovative Job Ready Programme with the aim of promoting youth employment and encouraging young people to get themselves ready for work.

Over the years I've come across a lot of kids who remind me of myself when I was their age. They're disillusioned with school, feeling it isn't properly preparing them for the world of work and so they lose interest and feel there's no point. Believe me, I've been there but with the right direction I battled through and am now a university professor among other things. When I started out I wanted to be understood and be passionate about my ideas and what I was saying.

But I couldn't go to the Jobcentre and say I want to be a poet. You still can't do that and it amazes me. You can't go to the Jobcentre and say I want to be in show business or I want to be creative. You can only say I want to be a computer programmer or a bus driver. That is where Futureversity comes in.

The great thing about the Job Ready Programme is that it's practical. It focuses on what students can do, whether it is music or journalism or photography - I think one of the problems many young people encounter today is that society is so driven by targets or different groups who keep saying everyone has to go to university.

I am a university professor, and of course I am passionate about higher education and getting the most out of our young people - but not everyone has to go to university. We must develop alternative routes to employment - I have a friend who can't read and write, but if you put him under the bonnet of a car he can get on and do the job beautifully, because he's very practical and hands on.

When I left school at 13, I didn't know my future would be in poetry - that's something that developed over time. Many other young people don't know what direction they want to steer their lives in and this is where I think Job Ready will really make a really big difference to lives.

This year many students will get the opportunity to spend time with older residents from Network Housing Group schemes, who will share their stories with the younger generation about the world of work. This is a truly inspiring and simple way to get young people thinking differently about their future.

These projects gives people hope. There are a lot of young people out there who really want to make something of their lives and Futureversity allows them to see that there are things out there for them.

Futureversity also provides a practical answer to a very visible problem of the kind we now desperately need to tackle in many of Britain's cities if we are to create greater opportunities for young people to express and realise their talents rather than just relying on luck.

 
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