POLICIES to assist young people into work, training or higher education need to take account of the rural dimension according to a new report, finds Brian Wilson.
Last week the Commission for Rural Communities (CRC) published another report, this one entitled Barriers to education, employment and training for young people in rural areas, which explores the particular rural aspects to this topic and seeks to assess the impacts of recent policy changes.
It is a topic which spans a variety of policies and services, including transport provision, vocational education, careers advice, apprenticeships, training programmes, job search assistance and youth services. The Coalition Government's approach has been set out in its Positive for Youth and Building Engagement, Building Futures documents.
Youth unemployment is for many a particular policy concern. Indeed around 40% of those who are unemployed are aged between 16 and 24. The most recently released set of unemployment figures from the Office for National Statistics paint a mixed picture of trends, though with unemployment for this age band falling modestly to just over a million in the three months to May 2012.
The CRC report points out that since the start of the downturn in 2008 the number of young people in England's rural areas who are not in education, employment or training – usually referred to as NEETs – has risen from 84,000 to 123,000. So whereas 9.4% of this group were NEET in 2008, some 12.9% are today. This remains lower than the NEET level for urban areas (now 16.5%), but disappointingly for rural areas that gap been narrowing.
Public transport is a key for many young people in rural areas trying to access education or training. Running a car and insuring it can be a costly alternative. Yet often public transport availability is inadequate. The CRC report notes that funding and subsidy for bus services is under pressure as a result of declining local authority revenue budgets, a 20% cut in Bus Service Operators' Grant and changes in the way that concessionary fares are reimbursed.
Although Government is raising the age for compulsory participation in education or training from 16 to 18, there is no duty to provide free school transport to those who are aged over 16. Indeed, many local authorities are scaling back their support for post-16 transport.
Having access to sound careers advice supports young people in making informed choices about their futures. Later this year a new duty will be placed on schools requiring them to provide independent careers guidance for pupils in years 9 to 11. April 2012 also saw the launch of a National Careers Service offering online, telephone and face-to-face services.
The CRC report worries that independent careers advice providers may be less willing to deliver in sparsely populated parts of the country where they cannot realise economies of scale. It wonders if rural schools will therefore have to rely more on the National Careers Service, though probably with few opportunities for access to its face-to-face advice.
A few months ago the Government introduced its Youth Contract – a £1 billion programme to help young people into work. Key elements of this include work experience, wage incentives and apprenticeships.
Rural considerations here are that rural economies typically lack the larger firms who are more likely to take on apprentices and that providers of the apprenticeships service will receive no extra funding for any additional transport costs that are incurred by young people in sparsely populated areas.
The CRC believes that the model adopted by the Government's Work Programme, involving frontline delivery by local sub-contractors, could be which suits rural areas. It is surprised, though, that more voluntary and community sector organisations are not being sub-contracted, since they might be effective in tailoring services to rural needs.
There are some familiar themes here for anyone working on policy delivery in rural areas. How to ensure more scattered rural needs are also targeted? How to stop those contracted to deliver public services from simply cherry picking urban areas? How to manage higher unit delivery costs in sparsely populated places? And, of course, how to have new policy developments adequately rural proofed?
These are issues which the CRC is asking the relevant Government departments and responsible bodies, such as Ofsted, to monitor, report on and address.