Something odd happened last week. Two senior Cabinet Ministers in the space of two days made speeches calling for Britain to aim for a very important, worthy and achievable goal relating to their department. Both of these goals, if achieved, would make a huge and positive difference to the fortunes of young people in this country, especially in relation to tackling youth unemployment.
The first of these speeches was made on 31 March by George Osborne MP, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Chancellor gave a speech in Essex on upcoming tax and benefits changes being introduced by the Government. As part of that speech he made a commitment “to fight for Full Employment in Britain.” However, he declined to define exactly what he meant by this (there are a number of possible definitions – see for example this article by the BBC).
The second was a speech made the very next day, 1 April, by Education Secretary Michael Gove MP to the annual conference of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC). The Education Secretary used the speech to call for an end to illiteracy and innumeracy in Britain – a welcome ambition considering that over a third of pupils in England do not achieve A* to C grades in English and Maths at GCSE level. Here is what he said:
“So today I’d like to outline one simple national ambition we should set ourselves to ensure educational opportunity is genuinely extended to all.
We need to ensure we eliminate illiteracy and innumeracy in Britain.
In the same way as developing nations know they need to secure clean drinking water and eliminate malaria if their children are to flourish.
And in the same way as our forefathers more than 100 years ago knew they had to eradicate polio and TB if children were to flourish.
So we must ensure no child grows up in modern Britain with their futures irredeemably blighted by illiteracy and innumeracy.”
These are both important and welcome announcements by senior Government ministers, but they are long overdue and should have been made many years ago. It is surely obvious that Britain should aim for as many people as possible to be employed, particularly young people (rather than leaving them on the scrapheap of unemployment for months or years at a time) and that this country should ensure that every single one of its young people is literate and numerate to at least a basic level.
There is in any case a bigger problem. To move towards “full employment” (whichever definition the Chancellor was referring to), significant changes will need to be made to Government policy on youth unemployment to prepare young people for work and to get them into work. You cannot obtain full employment without tackling youth unemployment and getting rid of it once and for all. Yet the 2014 Budget unveiled by the Chancellor less than two weeks before his speech contained lots of references to pensions and policies for older people, while containing almost no references to young people and barely any new policies for them. According to the Guardian, George Osborne mentioned young people just once in his 2014 Budget speech, while the Budget itself mentions the word “young” just 3 times, compared to a staggering 151 mentions of the word “pension”. This is despite the fact that the British Chambers of Commerce had argued that the Government should take action in the Budget to address youth unemployment and training.
Equally, to move towards eliminating illiteracy and innumeracy in our lifetime we need serious policy changes. The Education Secretary mentioned some changes in his speech but much more is required. One example could be an expansion of literacy volunteer schemes such as the London Evening Standard’s Get London Reading campaign – something which has been called for by the head of Ofsted and which has inspired other similar projects.
It is also worth noting that the first goal will not be achieved without the second being achieved – Michael Gove rightly pointed out in his speech that when teenagers leave school without adequate qualifications in English and Maths it makes them “effectively unemployable”.
The fact that the Government is setting out these goals is important, welcome and long overdue. But words will not be enough to see these goals achieved – we need to see a serious commitment to action from the Government on these issues.