Are Things Really Getting Better? the Labour Market Experience of Black and Female Youth (1) at the Start of the Century

Article excerpt

Introduction

The education and job chances of young people have been issues of crucial concern to successive British governments because, in the final decades of the last century, youth unemployment rates persisted at levels of over double that of the adult population and usually in the region of 20 per cent. The accompanying general increase in educational participation (2) was more pronounced for young blacks (Banks et al, 1992; Slade, 1992; Drew et al, 1992; Gray et al, 1994; Drew, 1995; Labour Market Trends, 1996) and young women (Gray and Sime, 1992; Gray et al, 1994; Labour Market Quarterly Report, May 1996) than their respective counterparts. By the start of the new century, the labour market position of these groups is thought to have improved substantially, in part because of this trend. There is some evidence, for example, that by the 1990s, some members of these groups had disproportionately benefited in terms of gaining educational qualifications and job opportunity (eg, Roberts 1995; Ainley, 1993; Tomlinson 1 997; McCrum, 1998). These conclusions have been generalised in the popular press. In particular, there is continuing public debate about the 'girls on top' phenomenon: for example, 'The Future is Female' (aac Panorama, 1994), 'Men aren't Working' (BBC Panorama, 1995), 'Grim Reading for Males' (Guardian, 1998a), 'Problems That Arise When Boys will be "Lads"' (Guardian, 1998b). Stephen Byers, then School Standards Minister in the Labour Government, lent political authority to current opinion when he argued that 'laddish' behaviour impeded boys' learning (Guardian, 1998b).

It is unsurprising, therefore, that while placing education as a 'key' priority, New Labour policy did not specifically target black and female youth. In a recent speech, the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, argued that university researchers should 'make their findings more accessible to government officials to help them deliver more effective policies' (Guardian 2000). The aim of this article, therefore, is to clearly present evidence that is counter-intuitive in that it debunks current beliefs. Instead, it incontrovertibly demonstrates that popular 'truths' conceal and belie the experience of the majority of black and female youths because they are based on analyses of the academically most successful and/or socially most advantaged. This paper is concerned with the majority: those who do not proceed to university, most of whom are from low-socio-economic backgrounds. It will be demonstrated that, by the beginning of the new century, the positions of most young blacks and women relative to their respec tive white and male equivalents, had not changed to any significant extent compared to the pre-Thatcher years. Indeed, for some young blacks it had worsened. This situation has major policy implications in terms of future labour market and educational reforms for a Government whose programmes have embraced a desire to help the poor and less able.

The method of enquiry is an analysis of different kinds of evidence. There have been several major on-going studies of young people conducted in Britain over the last three decades or so, such as the England and Wales Youth Cohort Surveys and the Scottish Young People's Surveys. Pertinent results will be examined along with other important literature. The data is contextual, quantitative and qualitative. It includes case studies, econometric findings, official statistics and legislative details. The analysis will be categorised according to explanatory theme. The article will be organised in the following way. First, the arguments will be introduced. Second, empirical findings will be discussed: illustrating the educational and labour market patterns of these groups and then supporting the themes of the arguments. A tabular summary of some of the results will be presented for purposes of clarification. Finally conclusions and policy implications will be drawn.

Racial and gender groupings will be dealt with separately for clarity's sake, though black females, say, will be represented in both types (3). …