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The writer is head of programmes at The Talent Foundry, an independent education charity
As nervous young people open their GCSE and A-level results, it’s likely that teacher-assessed grades will dominate the headlines. Focusing the educational damage caused by the pandemic on academic achievement tells a story in which final grades are king, yet that’s only one part of what somebody has to offer.
Students have lost out on more than just classroom time over the past two years. They have missed out on opportunities they would normally have to think about their futures and the routes that will get them there. Usually, students undertake a range of activities aimed at examining the pathways they could follow, from A-levels and university degrees, to apprenticeships and vocational qualifications. Customarily, there would be careers fairs where they could learn more about different sectors directly from the professionals that work in them.
Work experience placements are a rite of passage that most of us remember for the rest of our lives, but several year groups have been denied this. This is concerning as there has been increasing feedback from employers that young people are not entering the workplace equipped with the skills they need.
We all know there is a disparity between what children are taught in school and what they need to know when it comes to doing a job. People need confidence, good communication skills and resilience when it comes to moving on from a passive learning environment to actively earning a living. There is a concern that young people lost some of those skills during the pandemic, and we must urgently address this before they are expected to enter the workforce.
Now, more than ever, programmes that help prepare young people for the workplace are important and it is why The Talent Foundry has worked with more than 50,000 disadvantaged children in the past academic year. Youth unemployment could rise by 640,000 this year, according to the Resolution Foundation, with school leavers worst hit, taking the total of unemployed 18- to 24-year-olds to 1m. A reduction in education, employment and training opportunities will hit the most disadvantaged young people the hardest.
Those with well-connected parents working in professional industries will find a way to plug the gap that missing out on a traditional work experience has created. Favours from family and friends will help them populate their CV and allow them to gain the vital skills and the belief in themselves they will need when it comes to applying for jobs.
For those without this option it’s crucial that the private sector steps in. Businesses need to invest now to create the talented workforce they will need to recruit from in the future and, crucially, to avoid a severe skills shortage.
They can do so by offering programmes to children in disadvantaged schools that boost their employability skills and give them an insight into industries they may not have considered otherwise. By doing this, companies can achieve the dual outcome of securing a high-quality pool of potential candidates and drive social mobility, which is in danger of stagnating even further due to the effects of the pandemic.
Narrowing the attainment gap has taken a lot of work over the past decade and there are concerns that the progress gained will be lost. It is estimated that in the first 10 weeks of lockdown, much of that work was undone. We do not want the gap to become a chasm that transfers from attainment in an educational setting, to the wider life chances of disadvantaged young people. Every child should have the chance to achieve their full potential, regardless of their socio-economic background, and I hope that more businesses will come forward to help achieve this.