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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

Picture: David Parkin
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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