I have dedicated much of my professional career to supporting the vulnerable young in our society and it is an area that is of particular interest to me. It is clear that the quality of life in the West of England reveals a woeful divide in society with those benefiting from worthwhile economic activity on one side and generations of unemployed, unhealthy and poorly educated on the other. I cannot understand why we allow this state of affairs to continue and why we remain so complacent about what appears to be a national inability to fully educate and enlighten all, and not just some, of our young people – an imperative which should underpin every civilised society.
It is an uncomfortable truth: we have spent years partially educating our children. I remain deeply troubled by the continuing carelessness on these matters and by the wholly inadequate responses made to the inappropriate living conditions of significant numbers of young people in our communities. It is an abhorrence to me that there are places in these otherwise great isles where life expectancy for those in adversity can be 10 years less than for those fortuitously absorbed into routine economic life.
Having people able to develop the capabilities to find work and build the successful businesses and industries of the future in the region is a key growth factor. Access to employment for some sectors of the community is hampered by a basic lack of educational qualifications and skills and there are particular concerns about the number of pupils moving from primary to secondary school who are functionally illiterate and innumerate.
The average examination results across the West of England are generally comparable to those in other parts of the country, but there are wide discrepancies between individual schools and the state provision for secondary education in Bristol continues to be of concern. Moreover, the ability of young people to make a successful transition from school to further/higher education, employment or training helps them to avoid social exclusion later in life.
Skills shortages in the West of England are currently most numerous in skilled trades among process, plant and machine operatives. However, it is the gap in managerial skills that could potentially have the greatest impact on business performance and growth looking to the future.
1. Rebalancing life chances for the underemployed and disconnected: The new high tech economy in the West of England is inaccessible to many of those people who live here. Rebalancing this economic prosperity will be a key focus of the Metro Mayor. Effective measures must be taken to improve the skills and education system to match local business needs and give people the ability to apply realistically for jobs in their local area.
2. Investment in health education: Improved health education will pay off with the future reduction in healthcare costs and a more energised, reliable workforce. It will ensure that future generations of young people will never again be allowed to drift or drop out of the education system. Schools should be engaged in a concerted effort to counter the rise in heart defects, obesity, asthma, diabetes and other chronic illnesses that can be exacerbated by poverty, a lack of awareness and poor self esteem.
3. Bringing private sector resource to skills provision: I have spent the last 30 years of my life promoting initiatives which encourage the private sector to take a more active role in civic life. Businesses benefit from a local workforce that is tailored to their specific needs and we can use that resources to improve and innovate in skills provision – not just financially, but also linking young people up with work experience placements and apprenticeships that help to kickstart their careers.
4. Change how we invest in the future of our young: Radical steps are needed to develop and deliver a new vision for education in the region. As Mayor, I would make a big noise about the inadequacies of our current education system. With public visibility and profile, comes the ability to bring about change. I have the experience – as chair of the South West Learning and Skills Council and also Learning Partnership West – to influence the radical changes we so dearly need in the West of England.