Lost in Transition - Our Duty to Help Young People to Build Their Futures

04/10/2011 23:49 BST | Updated 04/12/2011 10:12 GMT

These are strange and unusual times. Daily news reports inform us that the markets are in turmoil over debt concerns. We hear that unemployment is on the rise - particularly amongst young people. And all this whilst the government embarks on major reforms on the way that education, welfare and work are funded and run.

Against this backdrop of doom and gloom, imagine how it must feel to be a young person growing up today. What hopes and fears would you have for your future? How would you keep motivated to stay on in education or training in the belief that it will help you to find a good job? What life chances do you think you would feel that you have?

Unfortunately the picture is looking bleak for many young people. We already know that almost one in ten 16 to 18 year olds in England are not currently in education, training or employment. If action is not taken, these vulnerable young people are in danger of joining the 18 to 24 year old group that makes up one third of Job Seekers Allowance claimants in Great Britain.

What will become of them? Are we to have a whole generation of young people 'lost in transition'? This simply cannot be allowed to happen.

At Barnardo's we never give up on a child. I believe that only with persistent and concerted action will it be possible to avoid a generation of our young people being blighted by poverty and worklessness. Indeed, that will be the true test of social mobility in this country - giving all young people the opportunity to reach their potential, regardless of the circumstances they were born into.

Through our experience of training and supporting around 2,500 young people per year, we have learnt three things. Firstly, contrary to media stereotypes about youth today being idle and feckless, young people are motivated to work and learn new skills that could lead to a job. Their motivation only risks turning to disaffection when there are desperately few opportunities in the areas in which they live.

Secondly, spending time in work based learning helps to transform the attitudes and aspirations of young people. Time and time again we see those who struggle with the rules and restrictions of the school environment rapidly come to understand the need to be punctual, reliable and presentable in order to get - and keep - a job. The fact is some young people learn better by doing - and in the right environment they achieve more than they ever thought they were capable of.

Finally, we've learnt the importance of partnering with supportive local employers that make these sorts of opportunities possible. In today's challenging economic circumstances, there is an urgent need for employers to open their doors to young people. Only by tackling the opportunity deficit for 16 and 17 year olds will we enable the most vulnerable and disadvantaged young people to climb out of poverty and onto the first rung of the employment ladder.

Let me give you an example. Homeless, in trouble with the police and involved with drugs, David had grown up looking after his alcoholic mother. However, since Barnardo's stepped in to help David the future is looking much brighter.

Barnardo's Palmersville service - a project in Newcastle that provides vocational training to 14 to 19 year olds - helped David to complete an NVQ and he is now well on his way to gaining work in the hospitality industry. However, it's not just skills that Palmersville has helped David to learn - it has also helped him to develop as an individual, building both his self-esteem and his communications skills.

By supporting and encouraging David he has made significant progress to realising his ambitions for a better life. His story is one of fantastic resilience in the face of significant difficulties. For those of us who work with young people like David we know the gruelling reality behind such situations.

Worklessness can be passed from generation to generation, and deprivation may be compounded for already vulnerable young people who are leaving the care system, teenage parents or living in poor housing. Many such disadvantaged young people mistrust authority, and feel that they have no one to turn to help them out of poverty and into training and work.

All of which is why the voluntary and community sector has such an important role to play - because we can engage with young people where others have failed. We must support our young people - however difficult their situations - to see that it is possible to build a future for themselves. Indeed, at Barnardo's we take pride in the fact that given the right chances, many young people go on to become the first in their families to achieve sustainable employment.

What sort of country would we be if we allowed the long-term impact of the debt crisis to mean the impoverishment of the next generation? We must address inequality of opportunity in the UK with a special focus on catching those furthest from the labour market - those teenagers who are easiest to ignore and who are most at risk of 'falling through the net'.

It is absolutely right that we must support those young people with potential to go on to higher education. But we must also not forget that there are many more whose life chances will be most profoundly improved just by ensuring that they have the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic.

We have a duty to make the rhetoric of social mobility a reality for our young people. They are our future, and we must not let their fate be determined by circumstance. Collectively, employers, government and the third sector have a real opportunity to make the lives of the next generation fairer and more hopeful.

A forthcoming Barnardo's report will suggest practical solutions to breaking the cycle of worklessness among 16 and 17 year olds and enabling social mobility.