Northern Ireland youth and the critical importance of mobility…

There’s an interesting longitudinal research just published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on the problems faced by 18 young people growing up in Northern Ireland. Each were interviewed up to seven times since the research began back in 1997. They’re all now aged 25 to 33.

It tells a series of stories (without pretending it is the real and definitive story) about the first generation to grow up in a largely trouble free society. But it’s work in trying to match what the researchers consider to be the key issues mapped in the studies to possible interventions that is likely to make this study of use to politicians.

One general characteristic from the initial reporting is “the centrality of place and [the young people] described the significance of the local spaces and boundaries they negotiated regularly.” It gives one example:

…we heard how young women took tentative steps across these boundaries in pursuit of a growing leisure industry, making connections and friends and, in some ways, re-evaluating their own strongly held attitudes and prejudices. At this early stage, the young men from working class communities merely watched as ‘their girls’ moved into other spaces, ‘plucking up the courage to move over the town’.

Over the timeframe studied, mobility was not always confined to middle classes and those in third level education:

Unlike those who travelled for education, young working class men who left Northern Ireland for work in the construction industry, for example, hooked into and identified more strongly with diasporic communities that provided a connection with and an extension of their communities and place of origin. The linkage and flow between local (communities and place) and global (spaces, networks, ideas, communication) enabled an easier return to their communities of origin for these young men when, for example, work opportunities evaporated abroad.

Given that contact with the respondents through the latter stages of the study was facilitated through the use of social media in the latter stages of the study, it might be argued that with the enriching of communications forms, this is a pattern that is likely to grow in importance. Not least as the search for jobs is likely to push people outwards rather than inwards.

Risk, in view of some of this study group, has become less calculable:

Despite the ceasefires, the paramilitary organisations continued to have a pervasive influence on the lives of young people, and on their actual and perceived sense of safety and security. Living in areas where paramilitaries continued to exercise a level of control, and where sectarian attitudes were openly displayed, affected the life journeys of both young women.

A growing drugs culture and a culture of binge drinking, fuelled by the energy of an expanding night time economy, compounded the perception of and reality of risk for many in this generation of young people.

One of the themes it picks up is the general disengagement amongst young people from mainstream politics. This is not just Northern Irish thing. Just this afternoon I noticed that my former colleague from the Daily Telegraph Iain Martin noted on Twitter this morning, “On 87 bus. Boy (looks about 10) pointing excitedly at Houses of Parliament: ‘What is it?’ His dad can’t tell him or explain. Heartbreaking”.

None of the group was able to name the First Minister and Deputy First Minister accurately, though some came close: “Martin McGuiness, he’s a minister for something, he power shares with that Paisley guy, Ian Paisley is it? They’re in power share, I think Ian Paisley is the main guy, and Martin’s the deputy isn’t he?” And from another, when asked if he could name the First Minister: “Not at the minute, no, it’s all been changed. Couldn’t tell you. It was your man Paisley, was he in it?” Another young man came closer and was able to visualise the First Minister: “Ay, I know what he looks like but I can’t remember his name, is it Peter somebody? Is that what he’s called?”

There’s an acknowledgement by the team that the data here does not lend itself easily to policy recommendations. This is complicated by the particularist (ie, divided) nature of the political settlement here. Even more so now that Whitehall cut backs are kicking in to local budgets: almost anything that comes with a price tag (or political controversy) stands the risk of immediate ministerial defenestration.

Some of the recommendations may be more applicable than others.

In education for instance:

– Vocational training should be accessible to all students, either on site or at local further education colleges or neighbouring schools.

– Informal education (e.g. youth sector) should be invested in, especially for young adults aged 16–25.

– Shared teaching across neighbouring schools (especially across community divides) is recommended from early years to offer students greater flexibility in terms of subject choices, and to increase confidence in accessing alternative courses and establishments.

In Employment and training:

– Investment should be made in youth and community provision for this age group perhaps in the shape of a forum where support, training, career guidance and personal development could be easily accessed.

– Opportunities for apprenticeships and training should be expanded and supported to allow young people to get experience in the workplace and the opportunity of employment.

In politics it calls for more of the kind of civic engagement organisations of the sort WIMPS.TV are already heavily involved in. And Stormont, to be fair to its engagement team and in contrast with Leinster House, must be the most school visited regional parliament in the western world. There’s one suggestion there though that might usefully be accomplished:

– Opportunities should be fostered for young people to work alongside community leaders and civic officers, including the opportunity to work with the police as police cadets in local communities.

There’s also a welcome call for greater flexibility to allow lifelong learning in a society which is particularly poor at providing high level technical skills for its population, not least when you consider than migration is likely to remain an important facet for many young people for some time to come.

There is also, no doubt a greater role for civil society groups, like business, philanthropists and the unions to play here too. In London, organisations like Arrival Education, look to enhance leadership qualities in young people in some of the most challenging circumstances.

Our problem is that, as the report hints, but is never explicitly damning of, we start from a long way back. Discussion of education is caught in an ideological swamp around principles of selection at the same time children and young people are being sent out into the world ill equipped to survive where the life expectancy of the average small to medium sized enterprise has slipped to eleven years from over forty in the 1950s…

The world we slipped away from and into communal conflict in 1969, is very different to one we are slowly re-emerging into in 2011. There’s little spare cash and even the prosperous zones of Europe where the personal debt burden of other countries is threatening to restrict both the public function and economic growth.

I hope this piece of research will at least prompt politicians to think again about what their constituents are going through, and what they might do differently to help…

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  • FuturePhysicist

    There’s also a welcome call for greater flexibility to allow lifelong learning in a society which is particularly poor at providing high level technical skills for its population, not least when you consider than migration is likely to remain an important facet for many young people for some time to come.

    When will the local business community learn that young people migrate not just because the high technical skill jobs aren’t here, there are no opportunities to get on the bottom rung. There is no skill shortage, there’s a will shortage. Only those who do emigrate have the work experience local businesses here require? Or perhaps learn that a high-skill and an in demand skill are not necessarily the same thing?

    Many businesses and recruiters have unrealistic expectations of where skills come from, believe in non-existent conversion courses and have little insight or experience of modern university course

    We need to look at “employerability” as well as “employability” here, because the region has a notorious bad record of keeping and developing talent, even when that talent is paying for all the training themselves.

  • FuturePhysicist

    How can we complain about high skills shortages when we can’t even sort out the welding shortage?

    How can we complain about high skills shortages when only 15% of SME’s feel R&D is a priority?

    How can we complain about high skills shortages when we don’t have growth in our manufacturing sector to offer placements to compete for?

    How can we complain about high skills shortages when our universities, research sectors concentrating on health, environment and defence are being cut harder than the arts, road services, or local government?

    How can we complain about high skills shortages when the second biggest employer after agriculture is the service sector?

    How can we complain about high skills shortages when the biggest employers in the high skills sector such as Seagate and Bombardier need a grant to stay up here?

    How can we complain about high skills shortages when IntertradeIreland employs graduates almost exclusively in the Republic of Ireland?

    How can we complain about high skills when we need the Republic of Ireland to subsidise a radiotherapy unit, and training for said unit?

    Perhaps we don’t need high skills, we want high skills but we don’t need to use them, in which case we need a very serious reality check.

  • Mick Fealty

    The point is not the complaint. It’s the insight from the research which suggests that mobility is key for this age group.

    Higher academic achievers gain that through access to uni; but in all the ideological warfare over ‘selection’ we’ve neglected to ask ‘what education good for’ if you find yourself on the other end of that scale?

  • FuturePhysicist

    Actually Mick, I think it works backwards too. If people have no oppertunities to compete for their ability to drive themselves are effected. Dawn Purvis said so herself with regard to young working class protestants boys in East Belfast. Their parents and grandparents perhaps would have been shipbuilders or in other manufacturing trades, people who would’ve looked outwardly but today the modern youth they’re not going to go through school for retail and hospitality jobs. Maybe a few might get a decent qualification, a tradesperson or even a professional with a bit of hard work, they may get into marketing or sales or something but there’s nothing that provokes the desire to be a high achiever when the negative realism seems so real. I won’t say pessimism because I’ll assume enough pride not to give up, but become very disillusioned. However by contrast I know people on PhD’s who’ve turned to crime and terrorism.

    C’est la vie, ici.

    Oh by the way, let’s remember with regard to high achievement that science has taken people out of poverty you know, it’s the most effective discipline of achieving more with less.

  • Mick Fealty

    I hear what you say, but in a sense you’re merely restating the problem. The trouble is when people have more than enough jobs to go round; there’s little incentive to deal with the underlying problem.

    Alison Wolf back in early 2008:

    …the UK performance in improving skills after the age of 15 is significantly worse than that of other countries. Between the ages of 16 and 25, the International Adult Literacy Survey showed UK skill levels to be significantly lower than those of other European countries such as Germany and Switzerland. Much of this catch-up by later ages in other countries is the result of learning gained through apprenticeship.

    This is exactly the lack identified by the Rowntree study. Not everyone can be a physicist, excellent training for the mind though it undoubtedly be.

    All our official esteem is vested in professions that require a certain kind of training. In some countries in Europe, the term ‘Engineer’ is reserved (like ‘Doctor’) for those with high end training.

    In others where it’s not, the wider needs of the engineering/technical sector are very well catered for outside third level institutions.

  • FuturePhysicist

    Quite simple Mick, engineers employ tradespeople, perhaps more so than any profession. There is perhaps a good uptake of skilled people from those areas, but I hate to restate the problem that there isn’t enough work.

    Construction often required the both, but it’s in the myers. Personally I do think there is some jobs to be had in both the energy and the manufacturing sectors, particularly things like farming equipment for the domestic and export market but how often do we have people in these sectors going into working class urban areas outlining what work is available to them?

  • Mick Fealty

    If you read the extracts, you’ll see the emphasis on outward mobility (ie to where the work exists)… China, India and most of south east Asia are still in work… Not to mention S America… Five A Levels won’t necessarily cut it… nor will an ability with a shovel….