On Tuesday, Tower Hamlets will be named in a major report as the local authority area with Britain’s highest rate of child poverty. The Campaign to End Child Poverty has found that 52 per cent of children in Tower Hamlets live in child poverty, as defined by the Child Poverty Act. The measure is derived by looking at median average household incomes and after housing costs are taken into account.There is considered to be child poverty when household incomes are less than 60 per cent of this median.
Bethnal Green and Bow is the parliamentary constituency with Britain’s highest rate at 51 per cent; in Poplar and Limehouse, the rate is 48 per cent (which could be a statistical anomaly).
I mention these statistics because they provide some background to a very good article in today’s Sunday Times by Rushanara Ali, the MP for Bethnal Green and Bow.
Here it is:
We know that times are tough and the job market for young people is even tougher, with 1m of them unemployed. Since I was selected as a parliamentary candidate for Bethnal Green and Bow in Tower Hamlets, east London, in 2007, I have come across many young people, including graduates, desperately seeking work. Graduate unemployment in my constituency was then among the highest in the UK and remains high.
I was told by one parent: “I have three children who have degrees from good universities — but they are having trouble getting jobs.” This was a story that was too often repeated. When I met these young graduates, it quickly became clear that many were making basic mistakes in their job applications and, crucially, they lacked social networks and confidence — which was further diminishing with the knockback of rejection letters from employers.
What these young people were lacking was the “soft skills” required to make the transition from school and college to long-term employment.
My proposal therefore is the establishment of finishing schools that teach manners, communication and presentation — abilities that are fundamental to getting on in the world. Getting a job isn’t just about your grades — you also need to know how to put together a CV, how to dress for an interview and how to behave with employers. These are skills that schools and colleges too often fail to teach.
The model for my suggestion is a scheme that until recently was running in London. Fastlaners was an intensive two-week finishing school that provided a crash course in everything from voice training to teamwork, workplace etiquette to behaviour, posture and dress; employers provided robust feedback and taught graduates the tacit rules and “tricks of their trade” as well as acting as mentors.
The aim was to build graduates’ soft skills, to raise their confidence and self-esteem, to widen their networks and to increase their awareness of the labour market. Fastlaners also encouraged graduates to work with other graduates to provide peer-to-peer support and networks so they could share experiences of what works and what does not. The results were impressive, though sadly the scheme is no longer running because of cuts in charitable funding.
Such projects are particularly important for working-class children.
Social mobility declined in the 1980s and we will not know for many years whether it bounced back under Labour. I hate to say it but on Labour’s watch, while experts say there was some improvement, it will have been at best a modest turnaround.
Sandwiched between the glittering towers of Canary Wharf and the City and close to the Olympic village and the newly opened Westfield shopping centre in Stratford, my constituency should have thousands of job opportunities. And yet the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion recently found that 10% of 16-24-year-olds in Tower Hamlets are claiming jobseeker’s allowance — the highest proportion in the capital.
What is particularly shocking is that despite the rapid expansion in higher education, so little progress has been made. While some working-class children have broken through, those in the middle and upper-middle classes have maintained their dominance of the professions.
In the past few years this situation has worsened. Young people — including graduates — are not making the transition from education to work because there is a radical mismatch between what employers are looking for and the skills these would-be employees have.
For many of my constituents, they were the first generation in their families to go to university and, despite having done well in their formal education, they lack the social capital to help them make the transition into work.
These young people need pre-job-search training to help build the social support and networks that would give them the best possible chance of getting interviews. This support would be crucial in helping them to compete against their middle-class contemporaries — who have many of those resources through family and friends.
We must do better at providing what young people need to get good jobs. As the Fastlaners project demonstrates, this does not always mean long-term training and investment but instead can be accomplished with short, sharp, rapid training and work placements.
While formal education is incredibly important, we should not forget the other skills, experience and networks that help us all to do well and contribute more to society.