A sad truth that we all must accept: the best time to eradicate poverty is always a generation ago. This should remind us that the problems we face today are best solved by handing opportunity to young people, and make education our party’s number one tool in the battle against inequality. As Northumbria police commissioner, I’ve committed to fighting poverty and a generation of lost chances in some of our most deprived neighbourhoods.
To that end, I recently visited a Gateshead youth club to see the work done to keep young people away from criminal gangs. While I was there, youth workers received texts from mums asking if their kids could bring home food. Those parents will have faced their own challenges as young people and, as the cost-of-living crisis hits home, the threat of entrenched poverty grows.
Austerity hit young people hardest. SureStart centres, play areas, libraries, community centres, youth clubs and Connexions careers services were simply cut – and that’s before we even have a chance to consider the situation in schools. We can take steps to reduce that impact now: we can invest in good local jobs, not just jobs for graduates, and we can put dignity back in the welfare state.
But if we are going to end poverty, we need to invest today to save tomorrow – and that means a radical shake up in education. It is now accepted that the next generation will be poorer than the last and employers often lament that school leavers and graduates aren’t work ready on entering the job market. We have to shift the basics of education provision, at both a national level and in line with our party’s commitment to devolution.
Firstly, with youth services – and I don’t mean a traditional youth club. Sometimes that’s what young people want, but mostly it’s about mentors and advisors, trusted adults who listen and care. The National Youth Agency says we need an army of new youth workers – 10,000 in fact. I wholeheartedly agree.
In Northumberland, Tyne and Wear we’ve seen £32m stripped from our youth services. Those that are left are under resourced and doing ever more complex work. Youth workers, whether in a boxing club or out on the streets at night doing detached work, are a lifeline for young people. Often the key to unlocking potential. Why are they considered a dispensable luxury?
Next, careers advice. Ask a teacher and they will tell you that, after years of Tory cuts, kids just don’t have access to independent careers advice and often they’re relying on those teachers. Arming young people with the knowledge they need to get the skills they need is one of the best investments we could make.
If you want to see less poverty a generation from now, it is time we looked again at a youth career services. And, to match resource to demand, we need to ensure that the funding for this comes via locally elected representatives who are proud of their area and want to see long-term change.
Finally, something so simple and so obvious it’s criminal that this government hasn’t fully committed to it: we need to feed hungry children. Kids on free school meals are more than twice as likely to end up out of education, employment, or training between the age of 18 and 24 than their better-off counterparts. In fact, in the face of the cost-of-living crisis, the government has been urged to expand the threshold so more children get free school meals. They’ve refused. A stark reminder that hunger and poverty is a political choice.
The problem is that the government considers these things as additions, expensive luxuries, when they should just be a part of education, of growing up. They should be the minimum we offer young people, particularly when we know that over time we will save billions and that closing the gap between those with and those without is the right thing to do. And, perhaps, if the grownups in charge stopped for a moment and thought to ask young people what they need – in the brilliant way youth workers do – we’d come up with better answers.