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.”
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.”
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)