Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Exodus: If we let our children go, our future will slip away too

A 'pupil premium' for schools with high numbers of disadvantaged students and an accelerated programme of apprenticeships for school-leavers hold the key to stemming the tide of youth emigration, writes Liam Clarke

New horizons: today's generation feel attacks like last week when mobs went on the rampage in Larne, blight their future

It doesn't take a genius to grasp the main message from the Belfast Telegraph/LucidTalk youth poll. The disillusionment index is just over two-thirds – that is the number who don't believe we have a peaceful society, who don't think our politicians can create one and who want to get out of here.

These are worrying statistics for any society. They show that we are a prime emigration country, somewhere which can't meet its young people's aspirations for a shared future, or persuade them to stay within its shores.

Polling was carried out last month and not much has happened since to lift people's spirits. There have been more job losses. There have been dissident attacks and a rampaging loyalist mob has terrorised Larne.

In the background, a series of political rows has put the First and deputy First Ministers at loggerheads and threatened the stability of the devolution settlement. Next, we face elections and the marching season.

It is important to remember, too, that the voices we reflect in the survey are not representatives of some lost generation of the marginalised and disadvantaged. We have not picked just the hardest cases.

Our sample contains a somewhat higher proportion of the bright and the fortunate, those in full-time education, training, or employment, than the youth population as a whole.

For instance, 13.8% of people polled by LucidTalk were not in education, employment, or training. These are the NEETs – the hardest-to-reach group of 16 to 24-year-olds.

In Northern Ireland as a whole, around 42,000 young people in this age group are NEETs, according to an Assembly briefing paper issued last August. That is around one in five, or 20%, of the youth population.

When 1,000 NEETs were surveyed last year by the University and College Union, it found that around 40% felt they were not part of society, seldom ventured outside their homes and suffered from stress. NEETs cost us around £250m a year in lost productivity, according to PWC, the business consultancy.

Young male NEETs provide cannon-fodder for paramilitary and criminal gangs. Last week, the Community Relations Council highlighted the fact that 80% of Protestant boys leave school without five good GCSEs and without much hope in the employment market. It warned that we cannot afford to let so many fail. Giving a helping hand to struggling youth is not just the right thing to do, it is in everyone's best interests.

A pupil premium for schools with high numbers of disadvantaged young people could help turn this situation around and prepare youngsters, whatever background they come from, for work.

In England, the premium per qualifying pupil is £953. For those who have already left school there needs to be an accelerated programme of apprenticeship and training programmes to equip them to take the sort of job industry needs.

We can't afford to waste the talents of the most vulnerable young, abandoning them to substance abuse, crime and terrorist mafias. Ignoring their plight would help create the sort of society which the more privileged and confident young people would be willing and able to leave after completing their education.

It was noticeable that nearly a third (31.8%) of young people surveyed gave their religion as none (20.9%), or other (10.9%). Since 62% of this group answered the question about how often they met members of "the other tradition", we must assume that, like everyone, most do have an underlying religious/political background. However, they are likely to be the ones who identify least enthusiastically with either of our two main religious blocks.

These "in betweeners" are also the group most likely to leave Northern Ireland and to believe that our politicians are incapable of building a shared future. They make up 38% of the total number which feels negatively about the politicians and wants to move out.

A similar proportion – 37% – of Protestant youth wants to leave Northern Ireland. Catholics are almost twice as likely as Protestants to believe that politicians can build a shared vision of the future.

There is a major challenge for politicians to connect with youth as a whole and give it hope and confidence. There is a need to end the zero sum game model of politics, where advances for one section of the community are presented as losses for the other. This can only be done by an accelerated programme of reconciliation and sharing.

Later in the week, when we publish more of the 15 questions we asked the sample, opportunities for politicians to connect with youth, or new parties to break through, will become clearer. Without giving too much away, it will become obvious that economic prosperity is a major preoccupation of the young people, who have spent several formative years in the recession, not the Troubles.

There will be areas of optimism. Like their elders, young adults of 16 to 24 are capable of holding seemingly contradictory views – everything is not black and white, and we need to listen carefully to them.

They are not just our future; they are our present. And they are in danger of slipping away from us.

Liam Clarke is the Belfast Telegraph's political editor

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