So you want to be a wrestler? "Great. What can we do to help you?" is the response young people want to hear. And that is exactly the reply that one young lad got when he approached Connexions, the government's information, advice and support service for teenagers. "That type of support," said Joanne Blacklock, 19, who worked with Connexions before starting a social work degree, "is crucial in helping young people find themselves and establish career paths. It fills the gap left by inadequate careers guidance in our educational establishments."
The "youth of today" feature heavily in news reports, and especially those young people not in education, employment or training. This last group and the skills deficit in the British economy - a deficit to which they contribute - have been among the subjects of the New Statesman/Fellows' Associates regional round-table discussions. In the debates, representatives from government and industry have come together to consider how the skills agenda can move forward. But if the education system is failing its learners, what can be done to help? In this final event we asked the young people themselves. Eighteen delegates aged 14 to 23 came to a forum at Manchester City Football Club to have their say.
Ivan Lewis, minister for skills, had said at an earlier round table that young people's aspirations were much higher than employers or educational providers gave them credit for. And it was not only the future wrestler who gave credence to that argument. All the participants shared his view.
"Young people have too little control over what they study," said Aparna Sharkar, 15, of the English Second- ary Students Association (Essa). "The system does not allow individuals to pursue their own interests, particularly if they are vocational." Although she herself hoped to study a traditional academic subject - economics - on leaving school, Sharkar was passionate about the need for individuals' choices to be supported. "After all," she said, "it is your education and you should have a say - whether you want to study academically, vocationally, or go into a job."
Besart Bujupi, 18, a design undergraduate, agreed. "Everybody has their own needs," he said. "Some schools meet those needs and some schools do not."
Such failings can have long-term repercussions for students, causing them to stumble at the first hurdle: GCSEs. If they fall through the net at that stage, not only are their chances of success limited, but it will be harder to draw them back into training or employment in future.
Emma Stones, 17, an A-level student hoping to study law, said that academic subjects did not seem relevant to her friends who wanted to pursue careers in childcare or nursing. "Most of my mates absolutely hate school because they find it so boring. They are going to fail most of their GCSEs," she told the forum. "I think you should be allowed to do things like NVQs, instead of GCSEs [at school] - things that will actually help you in your career."
But the notion that vocational qualifications could replace GCSEs for non-academic students generated mixed responses. Adam Wilson, 15, felt that people should know "the basics" before making career-specific choices, while others felt that relevant academic skills could be learned on the job.
Many of the participants complained that the present system, in which vocational courses operate at college level, did not meet the needs of those who were keen to learn practical skills but did not have the necessary qualifications to enrol on the right course. As Ceri Davies, a 19-year-old volunteer worker, pointed out: "It's hard to get motivated if you think you have to go back to school first to get some GCSEs."
Jon Bridge, 16, studying at a sixth-form college in Stockport, suggested that Britain should follow the German system. "In Germany, when you reach 11 years old, your parents choose between three types of school for you to continue your education in," he said. "The gymnasium is like the old grammar schools and the other ones are more vocational."
The idea of parents deciding their fate did not meet with very much approval among the other delegates. "Sometimes your parents have a totally different view about your life than you have, and they might send you somewhere you really do not want to go," said Emily Dyson, 16, a youth link worker.
When it came to post-16 vocational options, Billy-Joe Slaven, a 16-year-old who hopes to set up his own building firm, felt that the modern apprenticeship scheme had many positive attributes. Yet the experiences of 19-year-old Gavin Barker suggested quite the opposite. Barker - who, like Slaven, was attending the forum as a representative of the young people's charity Rainer - had just finished his NVQ in plastering through an apprenticeship scheme. "I have passed my NVQs and done everything I was supposed to, but now I cannot get a job anywhere," he said. "It just makes you think: what was the point? What was the point of doing all that for nothing?"
This kind of disillusionment with conventional education and vocational training, which can lead to intergenerational apathy, is something the apprenticeship scheme is trying to overcome. However, Stones believed that the scheme's success depended largely on the individual employers that took part. She felt that the employer responsible for the training element of her friend's childcare apprenticeship was taking advantage of her status. "They pay her £50 a week and she is working eight hours a day," she said. "The employer is making loads of money, because she is paying the apprentices nothing compared to what she would have to pay proper workers."
This is just one of many difficulties that hinder the transition from school to employment. Advice and guidance, or the lack of them, are equally problematic. Gareth Jefferd, a 16-year-old landscape gardener, who discovered horticulture through the modern apprenticeship scheme, said that his school had done nothing to help him find a career path. "I left very unprepared and spent seven months trying to find a job," he said. "I got into gardening through Entry to Employment [e2e], a course I was introduced to by Connexions."
Like Blacklock, many of the young people at the forum felt that Connexions had been their only guiding light. For Rajeeb Dey, however, the Connexions service at his school had not delivered. "We had a Connexions person, but you could only have an appointment with them once in a year," he said. "You were pretty much left to your own devices to go and look around the careers library and read the prospectuses." Bujupi told a similar story. He found the careers advice available in his area completely unsupportive. "When I went to see an adviser, I said I wanted to be a web designer. He gave me two photocopied sheets and that was it. And I was like, 'Fine, but what course do I need to do?'"
The educational establishment, it seemed, was full of obstacles that were hindering the development of students. And it became apparent from listening to these young people that one of the most poisonous problems was bullying. Lewis, the minister responsible for vocational education, could relate to this, having been bullied at school himself.
Barker was fatalistic about the matter. "It is easy to say that you should be safe in schools, but when you are there, it's a different story," he said. "There are 500 kids. There are bound to be conflicts, no matter what." Slaven backed him up: "Every school says there's no bullying - but you go there and you get bullied." Even though many schools had policies for this type of harassment, in practice, the guidelines solved very little. Adam Wilson believed that the reporting procedure in his school was futile. "Bullies may get excluded for a couple of days, if they have been really troublesome, but that is it," he said.
The solution, Stones felt, was not exclusion, or hard tactics such as "name and shame", but to tackle the reasons why people bullied in the first place. "For a lot of people, school is so boring and pointless. They go in and they have nothing to do but mess about with their mates and have a laugh," she said. "If you actually did something to make lessons more interesting, then there would be less need for people to bully each other."
Towards the end of the forum, it became clear that what these young people really craved was respect. They wanted more choice, more flexibility, more information and less stress, but felt that the best teaching professionals, and government initiatives, had one thing in common: an appreciation of young people's opinions. In that sense, they hardly differed from any group of adults in education, training or employment. Ivan Lewis seemed slightly defensive in the face of such a rigorous critique, but if respect for young people's choices - however strange - is the key to eroding the skills gap, he shouldn't have too much to wrestle with.
Gavin Barker - Rainer
Besart Bujupi - Philip Lawrence Trust
Joanne Blacklock - Connexions
Dawn Bradbury - Rainer
Jon Bridge - Youth Council, Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council
Ceri Davies - Connexions
Rajeeb Dey - National co-ordinator, Essa
Alex Dowty - Essa
Emily Dyson - Connexions
Susie Freeman - Essa
Gareth Jefferd - Youth Council, Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council
Steven Jones - Rainer
Aparna Sharkar - Essa
Ben Sherwood - Rainer
Billy-Joe Slaven - Rainer
Emma Stones - Youth Council, Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council
Adam Wilson - Essa