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Tory failures risk robbing young people of their future

We need to demand bold policies in education and employment if we are to avoid a lost generation, argues RICHARD BURGON MP

HEALTH Secretary Matt Hancock’s “Don’t kill your granny” message to young people is the latest example of the government’s cynical attempts to shift the blame for its disastrous handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the devastating death toll that’s arisen from that.

It’s particularly galling given the role government failure played in spreading the disease through care homes like wildfire when thousands of older people were discharged from hospitals into care homes without being tested.

This latest insult to young people comes hot on the heels of the government’s disgraceful exam results fiasco. 

Using the algorithm to award results was to further embed educational and class inequalities. 

It in effect evaluated young people on the basis of their economic background. It was, in many ways, the rotten system again unmasked. 

The justified anger across the country against this injustice forced the government into yet another embarrassing climbdown — another reminder that when we fight, we can win.

We now need to step up the fight to ensure that every child is given the support they need to make up for the crucial school time lost as a result of coronavirus. 

Of course, it is young people from less affluent backgrounds who have suffered the most. 

Research from the National Foundation for Educational Research recently found “teachers in the most deprived schools are over three times more likely to report that their pupils are four months or more behind in their curriculum learning than teachers in the least deprived schools.”

Given what drives them and whose interests they fundamentally represent, it’s no surprise that the Conservative government isn’t doing what’s necessary to address this crisis in education. 

One example is the reality that nearly one in 10 families in the UK do not have a laptop, desktop or tablet at home. 

The government claims it will allocate 150,000 more laptops over the coming weeks but the Children’s Commissioner estimates “an additional 940,000 laptops” are needed.

This need will become even more pressing as school closures continue as coronavirus spreads, increasingly alarmingly in some areas — particularly less affluent areas. 

For the government of one of the richest nations on Earth to abandon young people in this way by not providing them with the tools they need for online education in these circumstances would be a callous dereliction of moral duty.  

Without effective and determined action and intervention, the coronavirus crisis will further exacerbate the grotesque inequalities that already sear our society from the cradle to the grave.  

As a movement, we need to fight for practical solutions that meet the scale of the crisis.

One obvious step to address the attainment gap and limit the spread of coronavirus is for the government to immediately hire qualified teachers not currently in post. 

Alongside funding to convert community spaces — sports halls, libraries, or even local business premises — into classrooms, this could help make smaller classes a reality very quickly.  

As well as making education safer through the coronavirus crisis, this could help make a real difference to young people’s education and tackle the disparities that are already hardwired into an education system divided between the schools in working-class communities and private schools. 

The UK already has the fourth-highest number of pupils per primary class among the most developed economies, according to a new Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report.

Another new government policy aimed at young people also risks entrenching inequality, injustice and exploitation. 

Faced with high levels of youth unemployment, the government’s new Kickstart scheme provides funding to employers to create new six-month job placements for young people currently on universal credit and at risk of long-term unemployment.

But it’s just for 25 hours a week, at the derisory youth minimum wage rates and lasts only six months. 

It’s also only for employers who can offer 30 or more such placements. There are real fears that Kickstart is fundamentally about the state providing big business with a flow of cheap, disposable labour in low-paid jobs.

“Kickstart” sounds uncomfortably akin to the rightly despised Youth Training Scheme brought in by Thatcher. 

YTS came to signify a time devoid of hope for young people and the enabling of employers to exploit school-leavers for cheap labour while providing little in the way of genuine opportunities.

In a context in which companies behaving like British Airways and British Gas have and the firing of workers and then rehiring them on lower pay and worse terms and conditions is happening with alarming frequency, there are also fears that the government’s scheme will also enable cynical, opportunistic employers to get rid of — or at least attack the pay, terms and conditions of — other workers. 

We cannot allow this to happen and we cannot allow those in positions of political and economic power to manufacture divisions between workers of different ages.  

Instead, the government should be stepping in and creating decent, well-paid and secure jobs. 

As a movement, we need to demand a public works programme including a Green New Deal to create high-skilled, high-pay jobs that will give young people the best kind of start to their working life.  

Too many young people risk being robbed of their future by the government’s response to the coronavirus crisis. The scale of the coming crisis is so deep that it requires bold solutions across the board.  

Recent government U-turns show that when we are organised and bold we can still have victories. 

Now is the time for us to step up the fight for something better than a return to a “business as usual” that was riven with injustice, inequality, despair and deprivation.  

Richard Burgon is MP for Leeds East.

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