I read Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones the other week and it got me thinking about some of the experiences I’ve had working for Connexions.

I once had a conversation with an employee of a training provider which arranged apprenticeships. She said she couldn’t believe how badly some of the students were doing on what she felt was incredibly basic maths. This inevitably turned into a bit of a “the kids of today” style rant.  I said that I didn’t believe that young people had become less intelligent, it was just that there are fewer opportunities for those who are not so academic.  Young people who might have gone into manufacturing or mining are now fighting over the few remaining “practical” roles available in construction and warehousing.

She wasn’t convinced. But Owen Jones argues that the destruction of the manufacturing industries is what has led to the negative attitude towards working class people. Instead of looking to structural and political problems, increasingly the trend has been to blame the poor for their own poverty.

This links in quite well with the way services for young people are organised. There is no end of courses to make young people “employable” and “work ready” but also no real acceptance that there is a severe lack of suitable jobs in the first place. Lots of the “apprenticeships” available are, in my opinion, just an excuse to pay someone £2.50 an hour. For example, a study found that “in the retail sector there is no observed effect of apprenticeships on wages at all”. But in the areas where an apprenticeship sets you up for a decently paid career such as plumbing or electrical, opportunities are almost impossible to find.

Jones also talks about the New Labour obsession with “aspiration”, the idea that everyone should want to get out of the working class and that there is something wrong with wanting to work as a labourer or in a factory.  Its very difficult to say the right thing in this area because no one wants to be accused of being against aspiration! Of course young people from working class backgrounds should be encouraged to become doctors, lawyers and politicians. But plenty of young people don’t want more education, they tell us again and again that they just want a job.  In the past, well paid, practical and physical work was available but now most jobs are  “opening doors for each other” in the service industry.

A problem that he doesn’t really tackle but that comes up a lot in my work is that these days more and more jobs require level 2 in literacy and numeracy. We can improve education, introduce “foundation learning”, raise standards left right and centre but some people are never going to be able to reach that level. I recently had a difficult conversation with a parent whose son wanted to do an apprenticeship in construction but couldn’t pass the CITB test. She asked what he could do and I advised her he could go on a foundation course to improve his maths and English. She then asked me what would happen if he still couldn’t pass. I had to tell her that he probably wouldn’t be able to get an apprenticeship. She said he had excellent practical skills, he just wasn’t very academic. I told her I understood but that the training providers were not funded to put people through the practical side of the apprenticeship if they couldn’t handle the functional skills.

It seems like those who can’t reach the required academic standard are being left behind and skills that are not academic are being devalued. Surely everyone deserves to be able to make a decent living if they’re prepared to work hard. I’d like to see a world with social mobility in both directions where all different skills are valued and people who don’t want to climb the greasy pole can still have a decent life.