Young people are a key part of British society, and many of them work, study, play and live in communities outside school. Their futures are being shaped by their experiences, and so they deserve a range of opportunities to develop their knowledge.
But many young people have been excluded from attending school or college because of economic barriers, and not all of them can use their free time to pursue their own educational ambitions. At the same time, while those who are already attending school face enormous financial pressure because of tuition fees, many of them face other challenges, such as a lack of money and access to food, a lack of a social safety net and a lack of community support. In addition, many young people are not studying at all because they don’t have the time or know the subject matter. What happens to them between school and work?
One approach to meeting these problems has been the provision of free or fee-free education for young people. This has been particularly important in inner-city areas where there have been major challenges in accessing education. Yet free or fee-free education could be a solution to many of the problems young people are facing, but it cannot solve them all, particularly as the provision of free, independent and self-supporting youth centres has been shown to be more effective than provision of free schools in reducing teenage pregnancy, juvenile crime and substance misuse.
It is widely recognised that there are a host of barriers that have an impact on young people’s lives, and these come in the form of a range of factors, both institutional and individual. For some young people, the difficulties are associated with their social status, for others with their level of ability, for others with their gender or their age.
While there is a wealth of evidence that young people in the UK face a range of problems, there is still little evidence on how best to provide these young people with the support they need to help them fulfil many of their potential.
For example, only a few surveys of young people have been carried out with a specific focus on their experiences or needs. Of the many that have been carried out in recent years, most focussed on a particular area of need such as education and employment, but in all cases, the data was very limited in quantity and in depth.
We wanted to better understand the lived experience of young people and their aspirations and hopes to be able to offer them a higher quality and more innovative form of education – one with the potential to help them meet their aspirations in life. Since then, this work has been expanded to include the wider range of needs young people have, and to consider a range of areas from a range of different young people. As the data is now sufficiently broad in scope, we have been able to investigate the links between young people’s needs for social, physical and intellectual stimulation, and the development of the quality of the experience they get. Our findings are described here.
A key finding was that not all young people get all the opportunities they want, or need, to do well at school. In particular, young people who are poor, uneducated, unemployed, lone parent and disadvantaged, who are living in deprived areas and who are not in mainstream education have a very difficult time of it. In addition, while the majority of young people do feel that they have a range of opportunities that they need to be successful, there is also evidence that a large proportion are not receiving the opportunities they want.
Free education has been available in the UK since the 1950s, when Labour government implemented an end to direct state funding for secondary schools. The programme was intended to free schools, the last remaining state-run secondary schools, from the state’s interference in education and the state’s attempt to achieve ‘parity’. However, since then, the programme has been expanded and reoriented, and is now understood to be for all young people, and not just for those who have failed to get into or maintain mainstream state education.
This programme has been implemented via the Education Maintenance Allowances (EMA), which replaced both direct state support and the National Education Lottery, and through the school-to-work scheme. It has been extended and is now known as the National Free School Programmes. Many of the young people in our data who received EMA have gone on to complete free education themselves, while others have gone on to gain further free or reduced fees at other institutions. This form of education has not, however, replaced full-time teaching at a school because many of the young people in question had either failed to qualify in the state system, or had had to leave school, either because of poor academic performance or because of truancy or behavioural problems. The majority, however, continue to attend EMA school and work part-time in a way that benefits them and their families in order to support themselves, their parents and their families.
Since the inception of the programme, the number of young people enrolled in the programme has increased steadily, from around 5,000 in 1977 to around 60,000 in 2007, and that figure is now about 80,000. Most of these young people are not in the category of young people that are the most troubled, as they have not been excluded from EMA by some ‘negative’ factor, as far as the survey data shows.