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Making Workfare Fair

I’m fed up with the barrage of abuse from middle-class Labour supporters about the Coalition’s plans to provide work experience for the young and long term unemployed.  I’m equally fed up with some of the rhetoric coming from some parts of the Coalition.  What’s becoming clear to me is that neither side really wants to understand the problem from a human perspective, nor wants to invest what is needed into the solution.

We have a serious problem in this country.  Successive governments are responsible for the mess we’re in, and both the Tories and Labour are so blinded by their respective dogma that they refuse to see that they created the mess we’re in and so far have no idea how to clean it up.

It used to be that only the brightest and the best went to University; they were pretty much guaranteed good jobs at the end of it, commensurate with their qualifications.  The next brightest got into not-quite-entry level jobs or on-the-job training programmes in return for decent A levels, while those that left school at 16 with few or no qualifications either got onto a vocational course, an apprenticeship, or found themselves a job.

But then came the Big Idea to open higher education up, and now almost half of all eighteen year olds go to university.  Somewhere along the line, the jobs and training courses that used to be available to eighteen year olds with A levels up-skilled too, and were now only capable of being done by a graduate.  As time has gone on, even fairly non-skilled jobs have started insisting that successful candidates will have a first degree.  Does a call-centre worker really need a degree?

While the jobs market decided to go up-market, what’s happened to the other half of all eighteen year olds who are now excluded from those jobs that their parents were able to get?  And, even worse, what about the sixteen year olds who have few or no qualifications?  What hope have they of gaining meaningful employment?

And yet, ironically, despite the high level of graduates in the jobs market, we have a skills shortage.  We have been failing to provide our young people with the skills our businesses need.  We have graduates who are barely literate, but the dumbing down of education is a different story.

What has happened to the careers service?  When I was at school it was worse than useless for anyone destined for university, while the Job Centre and my university’s career service were also shockingly ill-equipped to help me.  Since then, however, the schools career services were privatised under the Labour government and turned into the bright, shiny Connexions Service.  That appears to be just as ineffective, judging by the numbers of young people not in education, employment or training.

If we are serious about rescuing this potentially lost generation from a lifetime of worklessness and benefits dependency, it’s going to cost money.

Firstly, we have to get the careers service working effectively, whether through Connexions or as a standalone service that believes that every young person matters and has the potential – given the right support – to succeed.  That means treating each young person as an individual, from the time they enter secondary education.  I believe that for some young people it’s already too late to engage with them if you wait until third year.  

Secondly, we have to get schools working effectively, offering a broad range of subjects in order to enthuse and inspire young people to try hard and achieve their potential.  Get some of the positive role models we all talk about into our schools too – not just the top schools and the independent sector, but the ones where there are high levels of low achievers, because they need more help and encouragement.  And get rid of this stupid, elitist view that some subjects are somehow worthless because they’re not academic subjects.  Some young people aren’t academically minded, but we must not write them off.  However, we should ensure that vocational subjects are teaching the skills that employers want and need from their workforce, not those that are fun and easy to teach.

Thirdly, we need to look again at the training and employment offerings available to school leavers at 16 and 18.  Everyone who says we need more apprenticeships is right.  But again they need to be the right apprenticeships to lead to real jobs and ideally a long term career.

Which then brings us to workfare.  Do we need to have a scheme that gives young people an opportunity to learn what work is about?  Yes.  Do we need to offer opportunities for young people to get experience in both the career field they’d like to pursue and of working life in general? Yes. Do we need to make that non-optional in some circumstances?  Probably, yes. Should participants be paid more than what they’d receive on benefits, plus their expenses?  Not if this is a scheme offering real training and meaningful work experience, as opposed to short-term free labour for unscrupulous employers.  But even so, there need to be some massive caveats.

Any scheme has to have the capacity to treat each person as an individual, and tackle their needs and aspirations and not merely those of the organisation offering the placement.  While it is great that larger employers want to offer placements, I question the relevance of spending eight weeks stacking shelves for a young person who’d like to be a beauty therapist or childcare worker.  Someone has to offer a proper advice and ‘matching’ service, and that costs money.

The scheme needs to have checks and safeguards to ensure that individual participants are actually getting some meaningful experience that can be measured and recorded on their CV and with agencies that then try and find a permanent job for the participants.  This should not be a scheme providing cheap (or free) labour to employers.  If someone has an interest in being a baker, then by all means find them a placement where they learn about baking and have the opportunity to bake and have their efforts assessed – not merely a job stacking loaves of bread.  Again, some kind of regulatory framework will cost money.

As far as is possible, the scheme should be voluntary – and if it’s set up properly and offers real experience that young people and employers value, then for most young people there won’t need to be any compulsion.  However, there are some young people for whom the world of work is an alien concept because their parents and possibly their grandparents have never worked.  For them – it’s not a comfortable thought but involvement in a scheme may need to be made compulsory.  I believe that should be the exception, not the rule.  This is about giving young people opportunities and confidence to pursue their dreams – for those who have no dreams it also needs to help them create the dreams as well.  That’s not going to be easy.  It’ll probably require some intensive work to set up and support those young people throughout the process.

And, of course, there has to be the opportunity of getting a real job at the end of it.  What’s the point of sending someone on a placement if in eight weeks’ time they’re going to be back at home with still no prospects of employment?

That would be my blueprint for work experience that’s fair.  When are the politicians going to get off their soapboxes and actually work together to produce a programme that’s holistic and person-centred?





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As a housing professional I receive a daily e-digest from the Chartered Institute of Housing. Over the past few weeks these have been dominated by stories from the party conferences; and I find myself in the bizarre position of being totally at odds with Labour housing policy and nearly applauding Tory housing policy. What on earth is going on?!

So let’s look at Labour’s offering first. I was incensed by reports from the Labour Party conference which suggested Ed Miliband had nailed his true blue credentials to the mast, and Caroline Flint proved she’d never progressed from being one of Blair’s Babes.

First, Caroline Flint told a fringe meeting that it was difficult to come up with a housing policy because the country was so divided on it. I’m sorry – the Labour Party cannot sit down and work out for itself what is right, and then sell that to the voters? It’s going to portray itself as the lapdog of whichever lobby shouts loudest? Well, OK, it’s been doing that for years, but on something as crucial and fundamental as housing? Shame on them!

However, worse was to come. Labour leader Ed Miliband then said that the unemployed shouldn’t get access to housing. What he actually said was that workers should have higher access – but given we all know there’s a housing shortage of crisis proportions, caused in large part by the last Labour government continuing Thatcher’s shameful right-to-buy policy and forcing local authorities to give up their housing stock to the private sector, if Ed’s great idea ever saw the light of day the unemployed, sick, disabled, single parents, care-leavers and those in greatest need of support wouldn’t get it. Because there aren’t enough houses to go round. In 13 years of government, Labour took their eye off the ball in housing terms (with Gordon Brown suggesting it was fundamentally a private sector issue!!). Less affordable housing was built, more red tape constrained the hands of social landlords, and housing waiting lists grew.

It seems that Ed Miliband had forgotten – or perhaps never knew, that within social housing there already is a key worker scheme so that workers in certain professions get accelerated access to whatever housing is available. Beyond that, the priority is to house the homeless – those in greatest need – which aren’t necessarily those who are earning a good and steady wage. Housing providers don’t have a choice, because they don’t have enough houses.

Under the UN Declaration of Human Rights everyone has the right to shelter. It’s a basic need. If you’re homeless you’ve less chance of getting a job. If you don’t have a job, it would seem that the Labour Party don’t want to help you get a home.

It’s OK though, Ed softened the blow by saying that people involved in community activities should also have priority access to housing. How exactly does one get involved in their community if they don’t yet have a community to get involved with because they haven’t got a roof over their head?

I’m genuinely disappointed. I have always expected the Labour Party to be outspoken about protecting the poorest and most vulnerable in our society, particularly given some of the noises from the Conservative part of the Coalition government. Under Blair it lost its way – ‘I’m Tory Plan B’ – and continued some of the worst and most iniquitous housing policies initiated by Margaret Thatcher. I’d expected that under new leadership it would start to wave its socialist banner once more. Instead it seems to be playing to the Daily Mail reading part of the gallery with policy ideas that would not be out of place in the manifestoes of the BNP and UKIP.

Utterly, utterly disappointing.

Compare that, then, with announcements from Grant Shapps at the Conservative Party conference, that the Tories will make it easier (again) for council house tenants to exercise their right-to-buy but this time all receipts from RTB sales will be spent building new affordable housing, on a house-for-house basis. This is partly what was wrong with Thatcher’s original RTB policy. It wasn’t just that tenants would get a ridiculous level of discount on a house for which they’d already enjoyed a rent subsidy compared to those renting in the private sector, but that the proceeds of sale could not then be reinvested in replenishing the housing supply. Meanwhile, local authorities were left paying the costs of building houses that they no longer owned!

I’ll maybe blog about why right-to-buy is inherently wrong separately, but for now suffice it to say that I am surprised to find the Tories – albeit with their more sympathetic coalition partners – making positive noises about increasing the supply of social housing, including supporting local authorities to build and manage it. In some strange political plot twist, if Labour was playing to the Daily Mail gallery, it seemed that the Tories were playing to the Guardian!

The Tories’ other policies on housing – some may have merit, but others are fundamentally wrong.

Charging market rent for tenants earning over £100k springs to mind as a good idea, but Shapps really needs to get his maths right on this before formulating a proper proposal. This isn’t going to be the nice little earner he thinks it will – he needs to be proposing this because it’s the equitable thing to do and not because of the ££ signs in front of his eyes.

Others are simply wrong. It cannot be right to allow the evictions of whole families from social housing because of the actions of one family member in this summer’s riots. Housing is a human right, and all that happens by evicting someone is that another social housing provider has – by law – to pick up the problem and provide some form of shelter to that homeless family.

Nor can it be right to impose a blanket cut in housing benefit to workless tenants. There are undoubtedly cases where landlords are getting very rich, thank you, from inflated rents paid for by housing benefit, and I understand that it’s this that is driving Tory thoughts on reforming HB. Giving tenants less money with which to pay those rents is not the answer: allowing local authorities to set rent ceilings for properties in the private rented sector in their area may be a fairer and more workable option.

And what of the Liberal Democrats? Their conference was first, and I missed some of their pronouncements, but anything which brings empty homes back into use has to be a good thing. Using the Green Deal to raise energy efficiency in homes in the private rented sector may also be a good thing – but let’s see the final Energy Act before passing judgement.

Of course, much of what’s been spoken about at the party conferences is irrelevant here in Scotland, where housing is a devolved matter. Which explains why the shameful and uncaring SNP government here in Holyrood is CUTTING investment in social housing, despite there still being an urgent and desperate need to find homes for everyone on the waiting lists.

Plenty to think about – and good to see that housing is no longer a Cinderella issue, but central to government thinking. Because, after all, everyone has a right to a home, and if we want everyone to be able to contribute to society, it all begins at home.

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I watched a ceremony of commemoration for the 67 Britons who were killed in 9/11 in London’s Grosvenor Square today. Dame Judi Dench read a poem, Remember, by Christina Rossetti. Besides being moved by the ceremony, the poem triggered memories of my maternal grandparents.

My grandfather loved poetry and used to read to me when I was little. I hold him responsible for my own love of poetry. My grandmother loved to hear me sing even though singing in public – even for the family – was embarrassing for me. And what are songs if not poems set to music?

I miss them both terribly at times, because I was able to talk to them more easily than talking to my parents sometimes, and even now I am an adult I could sometimes really benefit from their advice and their unconditional love.

My grandparents were buried together in the same plot and the family discussed long and hard what should be on their headstone. The best words that described how I felt then – and now – are contained within Christina Rossetti’s poem.

Christina Rossetti

REMEMBER me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go, yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

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Gang Culture

Some of Britain’s finest cities have been wrecked by looters and violent disorder this week. Much is being said by social commentators, politicians and angry citizens about the causes, effects and what the consequences of such outrageous actions should be.

Attention has turned once more to gang culture, and it’s being seen as a negative. Certainly we’ve seen examples this week of the bad things that gangs can do, but that doesn’t mean that all gangs are bad.

We need to look more at why people join gangs. I suggest it’s because everyone feels a need to belong, to have their existence on this earth recognised and validated. Some people are lucky enough to live in families that provide this validation and make them feel a sense of belonging rather than isolation. They’re increasingly in a minority though, whether through family breakdown or geographic mobility.

As a society I think we’ve got it wrong over the past generation or so. I think the youth service – whilst excellent – has got its priorities wrong. I think that much of my own work on young people’s participation in civil society was looking at the wrong things. We have spent lots of money helping the kids in our deprived urban areas to have experiences they could never otherwise hope to enjoy, trying to compensate for their poverty and perhaps less than ideal family circumstances. But most of these – it seems to me – have focused on the individual, and encouraged more self-interest whilst ignoring the fact that many people want – more than anything – to be involved with others.

I grew up in a family that on the face of it looked utterly respectable and middle class, but internally was quite disorganised, even dysfunctional at times, and I don’t think this is unusual. A high achiever, it still seemed to me that no matter what I did it was never good enough to satisfy my parents. So – encouraged by my family – I joined a series of gangs from an early age.

First there was the Brownies. Then the Guides, the church choir and the youth fellowship. Each of them provided me with a structure, a routine and a sense of belonging and self-worth that I wasn’t getting at home. And of course they gave me an opportunity to mix and spend time with my peers – something that again I couldn’t get at home. But I think most importantly each of them recognised, nurtured and valued my talents.

Those are the things that all gangs are good at. It’s what those gangs do once they exist that is at issue.

As an adult my need for involvement in a gang has grown. As a single woman living alone, hundreds of miles from my nearest family member, I crave the sense of belonging that being a member of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus provides. We turn up week after week throughout the year to learn the pieces we must perform in the Festival each August. Sometimes we really don’t want to be there. Sometimes we don’t like the music we’re being made to learn. Some of us don’t like where we’re made to sit. And sometimes we all hate the chorus master for taking us to task when we can’t get it right (and, to be fair, he probably doesn’t like us much either when we don’t do as he wants). But still we turn up, week after week. Then in August, when we stand shoulder to shoulder taking the applause from a packed Usher Hall, the sense of euphoria in those all-too-brief moments is enough to keep me going back to more rehearsals, to sacrifice the social life throughout the year, to put much of my life on hold for a month every August. I don’t want to let the rest of my gang down by giving less than total commitment, and I crave that precious moment of hard-earned and well-deserved glory.

If the gangs of kids running amok in our streets this week feel even a tenth of what I feel when I’m sitting in the middle of my gang, then I totally get why they’re in gangs.

Our challenge as a civil society is not to close the gangs down, but to find more positive, productive ways to help our young people find that sense of belonging and empowerment and self-worth that is clearly lacking in their lives.

Wouldn’t it be great if, instead of locking up those kids who rioted and looted this week, we found more creative ways of dealing with them? Like sentencing them to join a choir or a dance troupe or the Scouts or the Cadet Corps for a period of time. Force them into different gangs, ones which have the ability to reinforce positive attributes. And enforce those sentences – a community order or an acceptable behaviour order with a difference.

We are already seeing in the UK that culture and the arts don’t need to be the preserve of the wealthy. The El Sistema programme on Stirling’s Raploch estate, bringing music tuition – and providing instruments – to kids in one of the most deprived areas in Scotland, is a fantastic example of what can be done. We’ve seen community choirs built from scratch for various arts projects throughout the UK – the problem with these is that they tend to disperse after the project’s completion – why not find a way to keep them going permanently? We have some fabulous opportunities such as youth choirs and youth orchestras – if only we could find ways of opening these up to children and young people from less well-off backgrounds. We have some amazing individuals who have done and continue to achieve wonders in their field – like my own chorus master, Christopher Bell, who founded the National Youth Choir of Scotland – let’s harness their expertise to find ways of engaging meaningfully with those that are maybe harder to reach but may have most to gain.

Of course we used to have this, at least in the North of England where almost every community had its own brass band, often funded and supported by local business, with the band being one of the focal points of the community, valued and respected, where being a member was something to take pride in. It’s something we’ve mislaid but I don’t believe it has to be lost forever.

This takes resourcing. It won’t be cheap. But if we took the money we’ve been spending on sending kids on Outward Bound courses and the like, and invested it instead in long-term projects that look at developing our young people through sustained and supported group creative and cultural activities, I suspect it would be money well spent.

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I’ve decided I want to blog more. Rather than just thinking about doing it, I’m starting right now. I will be posting on this blog at least once a week for all of 2011. Or at least that’s the plan.

I know it won’t be easy, but it might be fun, inspiring, awesome and wonderful. Therefore I’m promising to make use of The DailyPost, and the community of other bloggers with similar goals, to help me along the way, including asking for help when I need it and encouraging others when I can.

If you already read my blog, which let’s face it is unlikely as you don’t even know it’s here, I hope you’ll encourage me with comments and likes, and good will along the way.

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Well I guess I had to join in the fun at some point.    Though I’m not sure I really understand what all the fuss is about.

So here we go.

You can find more about me on Facebook atwww.facebook.com/nikki.thomson

or you can follow me on Twitter, where I’m @nikkithomson.

I will try to get around to blogging regularly, but I’m making no promises!


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