Don’t lets clear away aspiration for youngsters with the riot debris

Young people from lower income background not just suffer from lack of financial support, but a distance between them an 'middle-class' professions

By Emma Norris, Senior Research Fellow working on education policy at the RSA

The riots that have escalated throughout the country – predominantly instigated by angry youths – are prompting some commentators to lament a ‘lost generation’ of young people who have resorted to such acts because they feel they have nothing left to lose.

But while there might be some credence in this observation, it would be a mistake to characterise the groups perpetrating violence on the streets of London, Manchester and Birmingham and elsewhere as the main victims of austerity Britain.

On the contrary, those young people who stand to lose the most due to widespread cuts to public services, soaring education costs and unemployment are the law-abiding majority whose aspirations for a better life are being systematically undermined.

new report by the RSA – Not Enough Capital – shows that the majority of young people still have high ambitions for their lives and futures. The problem is that they too often lack the support and guidance needed to achieve them.

Indeed, the outlook is bleak for young people from low-income backgrounds. British children’s educational attainment and broader life chances remain overwhelmingly linked to parental occupation, income, and qualifications.

Social class, not ability, remains the strongest predictor of educational achievement and the UK has one of the highest rates of social segregation among OECD countries.

The young people that participated in our research painted a complex picture of the struggles they face when making decisions about their future.

With university costs soaring, many young people were deeply concerned about the burden of student debt. The withdrawal of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) only exacerbates this.

Young people also talked about the other social and cultural disadvantages that they perceive as holding them back. Students from low-income backgrounds are profoundly disadvantaged by their lack of inculcation into middle-class behaviours and experiences that are reflected in all elite educational and professional progression routes.

Often coming from families with little experience of higher education, they lack education role models or the networks and contacts that could give them a taster of what to expect in university or elite careers.

Indeed, a recent survey showed that up to 40% of young people don’t know anyone who has a career like would like to pursue themselves.

Society must find ways to better support young people who want to forge their futures but lack the means. The education sector – particularly those catering for 16-19 year olds – has a crucial role to play through strengthened careers advice (as per the Wolf Report); by partnering with civil society organisations to provide young people with guidance and mentoring; by providing early financial and hardship information; and by bolstering the sector’s relationship with employers to ensure its students are meeting the needs of industry.

But the responsibility does not rely with educationalists alone. Government must remember its responsibilities to young people – especially those who have grown up in poverty and disadvantage – when making decisions about how to finance our education system. As one Further Education staff member put it:

 “They need the EMA to sustain themselves. It is not for going out and getting drunk. It really is for the basics.”

Commentators across the spectrum will seek to explain or condemn the youth-dominated violence of the past few days – some seeking to understand the root causes of such discontent, others focussing more on how to appropriately punish those involved.

Either way, the level of attention given to this minority should not distract from the very real challenges that the law-abiding majority of young people in the UK are – quietly – facing.

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