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School Drop-Outs Can Stand Out

I recently met Nadia* a young person on a volunteering/work placement who had such an inspiring story to tell, I was left wondering how many young people out there are in similar situations but not as lucky to have found the push they need to move forward.

Sitting at her desk in an immaculate black suit with a funky diary bursting with notes and memos, with a beaming smile on her face, Nadia told me how passionate she felt about the opportunity she was given to start thinking about her career. She was obviously excited that someone could see the potential in her and her abilities. This picture was is stark contrast with what she was about to tell me about her not too distant past.

Nadia started her account by telling me how she had failed her A levels and dropped out of school. With some distress on her face she explained how at that point she had felt hopeless and helpless. Without qualifications and without experience her deep down desire to go to college and pursue a career seemed to drift out of her grasp. She told me how she sat at home for months assuming that a checkout job at her local supermarket would be the best she could possibly aspire to. Nadia was completely disillusioned and had lost faith in a bright future because of the feeling she was not able to conform and follow the same path many others had followed before her.

We all agree that schooling is important but, due to mind set or life circumstances, it’s not necessarily for everyone, there is no two ways about this. Yet failure at school is certainly not an indication of future success if one looks at the likes of Richard Branson, Madame C. J. Walker, Mary Kay Ash, Debbi Fields, Michael Dell, Steve Jobs and many others. These may be huge highflyers but the point is, we can all make something of ourselves regardless of our attainment at school. I love and totally agree with Natalie Portman when she says “I don’t love studying. I hate studying. I like learning. Learning is beautiful.” Although I did not drop out of school, looking back I can honestly say that it was not for me and I’m definitely learning more now than I did then with my nose stuck in a book  – dictionary at hand.

Having nothing to lose, when Nadia heard about this volunteering and work experience opportunity through a youth worker, she decided to apply. She soon realised that there is more to her than the failed A levels. In only few months Nadia has started turning her life around. Harnessing the skills she didn’t know she had and developing many new ones. She told me about the projects she was working on with the confidence of an experienced manager, glowing and gleaming. In the time we spent together in the small office overlooking the high street I could see that in front of me was a woman preparing to launch her career. A little faith and an opportunity can go a long way.

I did not have to wait long to be reminded that these are not isolated cases; that there are many young people out there who could do with a step in the right direction. On Wednesday David Cohen (Evening Standard) wrote about a young person he met. Ricky said “[...] Nobody here got nothing to do. […] I try to sleep late to get rid of the morning so that I don’t get into bothers with the law. That way the day don’t seem so long and I’ve only got half the day to deal with.” No matter how often I hear statements like this, it’s always a shock. It’s frightening and chilling to think that anyone, let alone a young person, could and would think of their life as something to “deal with” and get rid of.

This is why we need to provide an array of opportunities for young people. From internships and work experience to apprenticeships and enterprise options, to run alongside mainstream education. These should be widely available to young people across the country and for any system to succeed it needs a coherent, cohesive and integrated delivery model which brings schools, colleges, universities, youth centres, social services, local authorities, health authorities, charities and businesses together. It should not be a random stroke of luck for a young person to be offered a placement or an apprenticeship. These should be available to anyone and everyone and should be based on a collective effort to support young people in identify what best suits their needs and learning methods; a system that works around the young person, in the young person’s best interest.  On the enterprise topic there is an enlightening report by Jamie Mitchell ex-CEO of Innocent Drinks on how we could look at enterprise to enable young people achieve their potential. This is not only about setting up enterprises but first and foremost about developing life and employability skills and delivering the support young people need.

I was so touched by Nadia’s and Ricky’s experiences. Although different in many ways, some of the similarities are striking: Young people who faced difficult situations in their lives, yet who are full of enthusiasm and passion. All they need is a little belief in them and a system that can help them believe in themselves.

Without plagiarising Ed Milliband’s speech I do think we can do better. This government and any subsequent one will need to really rethink our strategy to tackle youth unemployment and young people support to avoid another Connexions and Youth Contract fiasco and long term irreparable damage to generation Y.

 

*Nadia is not the young person’s real name.

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