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High school delusional

Too many young people are encouraged to dream of fame when, in reality, their prospects are bleak.

It was the second day of the autumn term and Westminster Kingsway College had come alive, the studied scruffiness of its students incongruous against the backdrop of its new building, all glass, light and pastels.

“You can usually spot Performing Arts," said the college marketing officer, casting an expert eye over the lunchtime throng. "They dress differently." Within minutes she had picked out Kamila Valanciunaite, 17, with long blonde hair, an orange checked scarf slung artfully around her neck.

Her GCSEs weren't great, Kamila confessed - she got a B in drama and not much else - but the college had been happy to take her on. "I can do modelling, acting, dancing, anything to do with that. TV, adverts . . . there's nothing else I really want to do," she told me.

Who knows? Maybe Kamila will make it big one day. No one wants to step on a teenager's dreams. Yet, in researching a book about young people and work over the past couple of years, I have met quite a few Kamilas. And I have found myself wondering whether the education system is really being fair to them.

Every year, tens of thousands of school leavers embark, with a handful of GCSEs to their name, on courses apparently designed to prepare them for highly competitive careers in areas such as the arts and the media. They have no way of knowing where they are likely to end up. In fact, many of them end up swelling the ranks of the young unemployed.

The truth is that the further education system is hopelessly detached from the job market. If you place college enrolment figures alongside UK workforce statistics, the anomalies become striking. For instance, there are as many students recruited to performing arts and media courses every single year as there are workers in the entire sector - including cinema staff, computer-games salespeople and lap dancers. There are as many new hairdressing students each year as there are hairdressers in the whole country, and more IT students than there are IT technicians.

Yet it seemed clear, talking to Kamila, that most of her classmates had high hopes of success. "Everyone on my course wants to be an actor, or a presenter or something," she told me. "I think everyone's different, everyone's good in their own way. I think everyone could get there if they tried their best."

Cruel world

The principal of her college, Andy Wilson, saw things rather differently. These students were not being prepared for stardom, nor even for lugging props, he suggested. "They'll go into whatever job opportunities are available in London - in retail, for example," he told me. "One great thing about performing arts students is their customer service skills. What employers want is people who can read, write and communicate."

Surely, I asked Wilson, a little more honesty wouldn't go amiss? And perhaps it wouldn't hurt if the courses bore more relation to the needs of the labour market? "You're arguing for a very cruel world," he said, "where all these 16-year-olds are told: 'You're not going to do that.' They'd all end up on business courses, then they'd drop out because they'd get fed up."

On one level, his argument made sense. The government is committed to improving qualifications, and has pledged to extend compulsory education and training to 18 by 2013. Weighty reports on the state of the labour market have predicted that the economies of the future will need a better-qualified workforce. If these soft courses lead to gainful employment, albeit of a less attractive kind, where is the problem?

Wilson argued that Kamila and her classmates would find jobs, though maybe not the jobs they dreamed of. Yet the facts don't fully support that view. It took months of negotiation, but a Freedom of Information request to the Learning and Skills Council finally yielded some statistics.

Based on responses from about half the teenagers who successfully completed courses in 2007, the figures showed that the numbers that found work were tiny - roughly 8 per cent. They were more likely to be unemployed than they were to find a job. About two-thirds embarked on further courses, many at the same level as the ones they had just completed.

When I put these figures to Wilson, he accepted that he has "real difficulty attracting employers for apprenticeships . . . school and modern childhood, in my opinion, don't prepare people to be going into the job market at that stage. Employers want a polished person with all the necessary skills who can then be trained to do a job."

Some observers believe it is time for a complete rethink. I spoke to Richard Williams, director of the Rathbone organisation, which offers training to disaffected teenagers - also, coincidentally, Wilson's predecessor at Westminster Kingsway College. He argued that there was a real risk the system was doing little more than keeping youngsters off the streets.

“We are warehousing large numbers of young people for whom far more creative thinking is needed," he said. "The conventional wisdom is that young people should stay in education as long as possible, accumulate as many qualifications as possible, and then at some point achievea state of readiness that enables their transfer to the labour market.

“I think that needs to be turned on its head - there needs to be far more opportunity to get direct work-based experience."

Hopeless dreams

And there lies the nub of the issue. Colleges can't really prepare this category of teenager for the labour market, because what they really need is work experience. Yet employers are reluctant to shoulder the responsibility. When I asked Wilson why he thought companies no longer wanted to train school leavers, he shrugged: "You tell me." Perhaps our casualised labour market is to blame. Perhaps there just aren't as many unskilled "starter" jobs as there used to be. But the fact remains that each year thousands of teenagers who should be stepping out into the labour market are instead being encouraged to follow hopeless dreams that - for all but a very few - will end in disappointment.

What becomes of them after they learn the truth? Do they eventually settle down to humdrum jobs, as Wilson suggested they might? My mind kept returning to a conversation I had not long ago in the café at a Morrison's supermarket. I was talking to a young man who had left school at 16 to study performing arts, but who was now unemployed.

“What about here?" I suggested. "You could work here." But my friend had been encouraged to believe he was destined for higher things.
“I wouldn't work in a supermarket. I worked in Tesco and it was the most boring thing in the world," he told me. "Helping people with carrier bags. I'm above that level." The trouble was, the labour market didn't seem to agree.

Fran Abrams will investigate the vocational education system on BBC Radio 4's "Analysis" programme on 5 October (8.30pm)

Her book "Learning to Fail" will be published by Routledge on 7 October (£18.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The tories/the people

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.