Ibrahim Aires: I’ll start by introducing myself. I’m 17, and I go to the Oasis Academy South Bank sixth form. I’m a confident person, and I would also describe myself as resilient. I want to go to university and study marketing. Ultimately, I’d like a career in advertising. But we’ll see.
David Willetts: So, you’re 17 and I’m 65. One of the things I’ve grown more and more worried about is that life is tougher for your generation than it was for mine. I think we’re letting you down.
Aires: How is your generation letting mine down?
Willetts: One measure is that it used to be much easier to get on the housing ladder. When I was in my twenties, there were lots of houses being built, and the assumption was that if you got a decent job with a decent wage, you’d be able to put down a deposit. When I tell my kids that I bought a flat in Clapham for £30,000 when I was 25, they can’t believe that’s what the world was like.
Another example is the way the exam system works. There’s more pressure now, and it’s unrelenting. In my day, the system was more tolerant. I messed up my A-levels, but it didn’t really affect my route into university. The environment you’re in is tougher.
Aires: I agree with you. I also feel like there is more inequality within the school system. Not everyone gets the same chances. How has the world of education changed?
Willetts: The pressure on your A-level grades is greater. In some ways, education standards have increased. But my sense, speaking to young people now, is that an awful lot of their activities lead up to some sort of exam. In the past, schools weren’t under quite so much pressure to turn everything into a measured result.
Aires: For a lot of people, the only purpose of A-levels is to help them get into university. But due to the pandemic, people have seen a slump in their grades. They worry that they won’t be good enough. And once a teenager becomes demotivated, school just becomes a burden. I don’t think school should feel like a burden to anyone.
Willetts: The more that schools can keep in touch with their students, the more they can keep them motivated. And I know that some kids from poorer backgrounds don’t necessarily have a laptop, so, for them, staying in touch is tough. How easily have you been able to continue studying during lockdown?
Aires: Our school prepared for it. Everyone got a laptop. But I feel like my school is a special case. It put in an effort to make sure everyone was in the online lessons. But I don’t hear a lot of teenagers saying the same things. I don’t think it was ideal for anyone.
My house is quite loud. You miss what teachers are saying. There are other difficulties, too, like connection issues. But because I’m in the last year of school, I’m thinking about my future. Younger kids aren’t always thinking about theirs. They go to school to see their friends. Without that, they just switch off. I imagine the younger years struggled more than mine did.
Willetts: What A-levels are you doing?
Aires: Economics, psychology and history. When I picked them, I didn’t know what career I wanted. So I picked subjects that are broad, that could open the doors into university.
Willetts: People sometimes ask me what they should study, and I always say the most important thing is to study something you’re genuinely interested in, because then you’ll stick with it. You don’t need to know what you want to do for a career at the age of 17. I didn’t decide that I wanted to be an MP until I was in my late twenties.
Aires: I did think about other options, like an apprenticeship. I weighed it up. A lot of my teachers say that university was the best time of their lives. But when I was really demotivated at school, I wondered, “What’s the point?” I heard about how the pandemic meant employment was falling. I thought, I don’t want to get into a lot of debt and then not find a good job. That’s something that young people do think about: student debt. But ultimately, I made the decision to go.
Willetts: Of course, there are other routes. There are apprenticeships and vocational training. But for many young people, the most transformative experience is to go to university. The vast majority of young people who do so don’t regret it. Although the virus has affected people’s job prospects, regardless of their education, it’s even worse if you’re not a graduate.
Look, I was the minister for universities who brought in the £9,000 fee. But you don’t pay it up front. You pay it back afterwards, if you’re in a well-paid job, through a higher rate of income tax. If any young person was put off going to university by the thought that they couldn’t afford it, that’d be a tragedy.
Aires: With the implementation of degree apprenticeships [in 2015], I did think about that, too. It’s sort of a middle way. When I applied to my universities, I made sure all of them had a placement scheme. But young people aren’t always that informed about their options.
There are also a lot of boys who feel like A-levels aren’t going to work for them, and that they need an income. So they drop out of school. And because of the pandemic, it’s difficult to get a job.
Willetts: There used to be the “teenage job” – everything from a newspaper round to helping out at a shop on a Saturday. It does look as if there are fewer teenagers doing some kind of work while studying. Some people would say that’s a good thing.
Aires: In my area, some young people join gangs or start selling drugs. With the pandemic, I worry that more people will drop out of school and turn to that lifestyle. Boys don’t want to ask their parents to buy them things, because a lot of them aren’t wealthy. I really think that schools can stop people from joining gangs. And I think if teenagers had another way to make a bit of money, it would keep them in school.
Willetts: A lot of the jobs that young people do are “contact jobs” – in a shop, helping out in a pub or restaurant. And those are the sectors that have been worst hit by the virus. There are various protections through the furloughing scheme, but that’s really for people who are a bit older, who have a full-time job.
You’re setting me thinking… It’s an interesting challenge. You could imagine a school linking up with local employers to find practical jobs that someone could do for a few hours on a Saturday. Maybe that would stop people getting into trouble.
Aires: I also want to talk about mental health. I’ve used services like Place2Be [a provider of in-school counselling]. How do you think we can help more boys and young men receive that additional support? Especially given the financial stress, the school stress – all the stuff they’re not speaking up about. Boys are traditionally stubborn when it comes to talking about mental health.
Willetts: I think it’s a great campaign that Men’s Health got involved with [“Male Mental Health: The Next Generation” in 2019]. The suggestion that, as part of the Ofsted assessment of a school, it should be looking at mental health provisions is a very good idea. The other thing is whether the network of other activities you’re involved in, such as sports clubs, could be a source of mental health advice. Where do you think it would best be delivered?
Aires: I feel like in school [is best]. But the pandemic sort of stopped that. To be fair, a lot of schools don’t have mental health services because they can’t afford it. I feel like the government should ensure that they can. Especially because of what we were talking about, how everything is so exams-based. It’s a lot of pressure, particularly if you come from a lower-income family. School is some people’s only way out.
Willetts: Clearly, you could imagine having more funding for the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services [CAMHS], which is what’s supposed to help. But it can’t meet the demand. The other way is teacher training, so that teachers are trained to recognise a problem and know how to help.
Aires: But what if schools can’t finance it? There’s an opportunity cost: they’re going to have to let go of other services or equipment.
Willetts: There’s no right answer. One argument is that schools should have a budget and run it the way they think is best. Quite often, head teachers say that one of their frustrations is when they get lots of different pots of money that they have to use for a specific purpose. They used to say this to me when I was in government: “Please, give us one budget and the freedom to manage it how we think best.”
Aires: Schools have a lot of pressure on them to produce good grades. If schools have a choice, a lot of them will pump it into improving grades.
Willetts: That’s a very powerful point.
Aires: I’d like to talk a bit about politics. A lot of people my age have a very negative view of our government. I also don’t see a lot of young people in parliament. I don’t think we have anyone who can represent us. I don’t hear a lot of people my age saying they want to get into politics. Some people think they can’t get into it.
There’s a sense that the youth and the government are in competition, especially with people like Marcus Rashford and Stormzy speaking up. You see people within politics shutting them down, but those are our role models. It seems to me that the involvement of someone like Rashford could have been a great opportunity for the government. Teenagers feel let down.
Willetts: They didn’t handle it brilliantly. He did persuade them in the end. But it’s a pity it couldn’t have happened sooner.
The tragedy is that we get into a vicious circle where young people get turned off politics and don’t vote. And if they don’t vote, their ability to influence things is reduced. One reason, which we’ve researched, is that there are many young people in the private rented sector for whom getting registered as a voter is quite difficult, especially if you’re moving around a bit. It is unfair.
One idea is to invite election candidates to debate in front of you at school, or invite an MP to do a question-and-answer session. Then you can ask: what are the routes into politics, and how can we influence things?
Aires: My school finds a lot of opportunities for us, and we get a lot of visitors. I managed to get work experience at a marketing firm because of the school. I feel like schools are so important. The police like to talk about stopping gang violence. Well, school is the place
they need to focus on. Stopping exclusions, as far as possible; helping kids with their aspirations, with their studies and, most importantly, with their mental health.
We used to have a youth club connected to the school, but it got shut down when councils cut the funding. One of the first things I did that was kind of like work experience was working in a youth club. It helped me to understand other people. School can help you, but school can’t always be with you. Youth clubs are another place where young men could get additional mental health support.
Willetts: We need more of those networks – sports clubs, sports facilities, anywhere young people can let off steam. At the Resolution Foundation, we’ve tracked what’s happening with mental health, and it does look like young people have been particularly badly affected. One of the reasons why we think this has happened is that the space young people live in is much more cramped, and that gap has got worse. A lot of young
people are in a flat without access to a garden. Everybody focuses on the physical health
effects of the virus being worse for older people, but it looks like the mental health effects are worse if you’re young.
Aires: I agree with you. Being at home, especially if you have a bigger family… You don’t have your personal space, you don’t have that breather time. I also feel like mentors can benefit people: having someone around who can reassure you.
Willetts: Yes, I think that meeting people who are older helps. There are so many stereotypes, and it goes both ways.
Aires: There is a sort of distance. For example, if you go on social media, there are a lot of jokes about the older generation.
Willetts: “OK, Boomer.”
Aires: Or, more recently, there’s the “Karen”, who’s sort of a… party-pooper.
Willetts: The evidence is that, outside of school and family, there’s much less intergenerational mixing. That’s why things like sports clubs are important, and again why the virus is so bad.
Aires: So how do we get the Boomer generation to talk to the younger generation?
Willetts: One way is through work, when it’s a structured opportunity like internships. Not just to hear about the job, but to hear the personal stories behind the job. Another way is the network of parents at a school. Think of them as a resource; between them, they’ve got interesting stories. That’s a programme a school can create. Some older people have a terrible caricature of younger people, until they find out these young people are actually hard working and socially committed.
Aires: Yes. Older people don’t like younger people, from what I’ve seen. I’ve been thinking, too, that in the Boomer generation, speaking about mental health isn’t the norm. Our generation is different; almost everyone can speak about it. Older people’s feelings are quite suppressed, compared to ours. Speaking with them could help them as much as it helps us.
Willetts: That’s a very interesting thought. I can see that mental health is talked about more than it used to be, and that’s a good thing.
Aires: There is such a distance between these two groups. We tend to think that successful people have always been successful, because of the generation they were born in. Getting to know people’s stories would help. That sort of understanding is important for society.
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