Youth unemployment is at a record high. The figures were all over the headlines last week - 1 million 16 to 24 year olds are now out of work. But youth unemployment is a problem that started rising long before the recession. If we can't blame rises in youth unemployment entirely on the recession, what can we blame it on?
An obvious issue is skills. Our most recent report - Learning Curve: Schooling and skills for future jobs, sponsored by ICAEW - finds that many young people, particularly those living in more deprived cities, are leaving school without the necessary qualifications to enable them to go on to further education and training or to get a job.
Employers increasingly demand workers have good numeracy and literacy skills. Yet, while there has been a general improvement in school performance across the country, more deprived cities still fall some way behind more affluent ones when it comes to Maths and English. And it's in these cities that youth unemployment is highest.
Current patterns of skills attainment then are serving to reinforce existing patterns of deprivation across our cities. Young people without good numeracy and literacy skills are not only going to find it more difficult to find work, but also more difficult to move on in further education and training. And if they do get a job, the chances of them progressing in work are lower as they're less likely to access work-related training.
If numeracy and literacy are so important to young people's life chances, why aren't schools ensuring pupils do well in these subjects? It's difficult to disentangle the impact socio-economic background has on attainment but it does seem part of the answer may lie in school league tables. For many years the headline indicator on school performance has been percentage of students gaining 5 A*-C grades. This gives schools the incentive to focus on students at the margins (the C-D borderline) but also to encourage pupils to take less academic subjects.
The benchmark for judging school performance now includes Maths and English but it's evident that more needs to be done to support young people in more deprived parts of the country. More support should be given to pupils who are struggling with Maths and English through the government's Pupil Premium and Free Schools in particular should use their freedoms to focus on these core subjects. Pupils also need to be aware of the importance of these subjects through structured careers advice.
These issues can't be addressed through schools alone though. By 2020, 80% of the workforce will have already left compulsory education. There is a clear role for work programme providers and other employment support agencies in ensuring their clients have the necessary numeracy and literacy skills.
More generally, publicly funded adult education and training should be targeted towards improving core skills among low skilled, disadvantaged groups. Effective intervention is crucial if the government is to break continual cycles of deprivation and avoid people's prospects being damaged over the longer term.