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How can we effectively close the disadvantage gap?

Sharon Davies is the CEO of Young Enterprise and a highly experienced youth worker. Having left home at 16, Sharon was working in a Kwik Save at 19 when she was spotted by a youth worker who noticed her savvy and calm interactions with misbehaving teenagers outside the shop. The youth worker then encouraged her to go into youth work herself – a turning point for her own future. Here, Sharon discusses closing the disadvantage gap by giving young people the skills they need to succeed…

A 2019 report by the Education Policy Institute found that the attainment gap between the most disadvantaged students and their peers is increasing. Disadvantaged students are almost two years behind by the time they finish their GCSEs.

The report ‘Who’s Left 2019’ found that the extent of the disadvantage gap has historically been masked by ‘off-rolling’. This is the practice of removing students from rolls, based on whether or not they were enrolled in January of Year 11, which more often than not improves the GCSE results of a school. The FFT Education Datalab, which produced the report, found that 24,600 students disappeared from school rolls in 2019, compared to 22,000 in 2018. This problem is getting worse. 

Disadvantage gap highlights inequality Sharon Davies, CEO of Young Enterprise, on closing the disadvantage gap

According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, income inequality in the UK is amongst the highest by international standards, and regional inequality is higher than any other large wealthy country. More and more young people are not getting the fair start they deserve.

In fact, according to a recent poll by the Social Mobility Commission, 74% of people in the South East believe that there are good opportunities for them to make progress, compared to 31% in the North East.

It is critical that young people with the least access to social capital are not left behind. So how can we reduce the disadvantage gap? The answer lies in ensuring every young person is provided with meaningful opportunities to develop crucial skills as a fully integrated part of the education system.  Our current knowledge-based curriculum has created an exam led approach to education which inevitably leaves some young people behind. It increases pressure on teachers and school leaders and exacerbates challenges such as off-rolling.

There is a greater need than ever to teach these crucial financial and entrepreneurial skills in our schools. Having the opportunity during school years to develop work skills and gain insight into the range of career opportunities available is a prerequisite for social mobility. Confidently understanding money puts young people in a good position to start their working lives. We are currently not doing enough to give young people the consistent access to the skills they need. Consequently, opportunities to even the playing field are being missed.

Buidling on transferable skills

It’s not just about understanding the world of work and finance, but all of those transferable skills that are going to be the currency of employability in young people’s futures. At Young Enterprise, we never fail to be amazed by the impact our programmes can have on our participants. Young people develop a confidence they never had, able to solve real-life problems in real-time, learn from their mistakes and adapt accordingly; these are the skills that enrich academic attainment to maximise opportunity.

Just imagine if every young person were given equal access to develop the skills they need to succeed in addition to their academic achievements. Imagine the increased opportunity if a young person can showcase their potential through both academic achievement and skills development, and these were equally valued by employers. This vision is not a million miles away.  It is one that Young Enterprise wholeheartedly believes in, it’s one that employers call for every year, and it is one that enables teachers to do what they entered the profession to do – inspire, enthuse, and prepare young people most effectively for their future.    

With a new language of success, together with the access to develop skills to match, so many more young people – regardless of their background – can begin to aspire to success.

We’re committed to making change happen. By 2023, Young Enterprise aims to create a minimum of 1 million opportunities to help young people activate their untapped ambition.

But as the ‘Who’s Left’ report showed, there is still a long way to go. We owe it to our young people to act today to equip them with the skills and confidence they will need to succeed tomorrow.  All of our futures depend on it.



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