“Traumatised Afghan refugees fear deportation from EU: Casualties on the rise in Afghan conflict, but EU plans to deport 80,000 refugees back to the war-torn country” – so ran the headlines in a recent Al-Jazeera website article. It quoted the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, stating that, in 2015, casualties in Afghanistan were as follows:
3,545 civilians dead and 7,457 injured
37 percent increase in women casualties
14 percent increase in child casualties
1 in 4 victims was a child
This is deeply disturbing. We don’t see much in the British news about Afghanistan nowadays, but the country continues to experience major problems with the Taliban, ISIS, endemic violence, poverty and unemployment.
There are signs of real hope, though. About 8.4 million students (39 percent of them girls) are in primary and secondary schools, 8 times more than in 2001. However, around 3.3 million children remain out of school, most of them girls. And the vast majority of adults did not completed their schooling.
For some years, the charity I have been involved with, Afghan Action, has been advocating an expansion of vocational skills education and training for school-age children. Ironically, the British House of Lords Social Mobility Select Committee is arguing for exactly the same in the UK.
“The current system for helping people move from school to work is failing most young people” writes the Committee Chair, Baroness Corston. “They are simply not being adequately prepared for the world of work. This significantly disadvantages a huge number of young people and limits their opportunity for social mobility. Recent governments have focused on higher education and apprenticeships as the way to help young people to be successful in later life. Both routes can work well – but it is absolutely not the case that they are suitable for everyone... We have found that without being taught life skills, given the right support, access to work experience and robust, independent careers advice, we are in danger of trapping these young people in low-skilled, low-paid work, with little chance of a rewarding career.” (Overlooked and Left Behind: improving the transition from school to work for the majority of young people. April 2016).
I believe the answer to unemployment is not just jobs, but skills. Without the skills the Economy needs, we will always depend on skilled labour from overseas. Without the opportunity to acquire these very skills – and the sound education which should accompany them – our schools will continue to churn out over 4 in 10 young people as “failures” in terms of their poor exam results (below grade C in GCSEs), but – worse still – these young people will have been equipped with none of the technical skills they need to survive and prosper in an increasingly tough world.
Let’s have a look at the Department for Education’s GCSE statistics for schools in England, showing the percentage of pupils achieving 5+ A*-C GCSEs (or equivalent) including English and Maths:
2012 2013 2014 2015
England – all schools 59.4% 59.2% 53.4% 53.8%
England – state funded schools 58.8% 60.6% 56.6% 57.1%
Now tell me this. What kind of education system deliberately chooses to designate 4 in 10 of our young people as failures? These young people are hardly likely to be the best advocates for their own children’s education if their experience of school has been so negative.
And so the downward spiral sets in. Youngsters don’t acquire the skills they need to get a decent job. Teachers – under more pressure than ever before – leave to teach abroad or do something quite different. And we carry on having to import the skilled labour we are so bad at producing ourselves.
Last July, a Times Educational Supplement report stated that “a third of all teachers plan to leave the profession in the next five years.. Most have been driven out by excessive workloads and unreasonable managers..”
And the solution to this crisis? Disrupt the entire system even more by forcing all State schools to become academies. In the recent Budget (16 March 2016), the Chancellor announced that he wanted to remove schools from council control to “drive up standards” and make all schools become academies by 2022. Now even more teachers are talking of quitting.
We have huge pressures in our own country on young people. Even our graduates are struggling to find good jobs - more than half are in jobs not needing a degree. And they have their student loans to repay.
But if we think we have problems, just look at Afghanistan. 15 years on from the Allied invasion to drive out the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, the country has an estimated unemployment rate of 40% - and yet almost all the skilled jobs have to be done by foreigners. Afghan refugees, by the way, account for 24 percent of those refugees and migrants who have braved the dangerous Mediterranean waters and made it to Europe so far this year. Things are so tough in that sad, dangerous, war-torn country.
When you think about it, perhaps Afghanistan and the UK are not so different. Young people with limited prospects. Endemic skills shortages. Stress and pressure. Poverty and hardship. Governments unable to meet the needs of their people, channel their talents and use their energies.
At the heart of the Christian Gospel is the conviction that we all matter, that God’s love embraces us all, that every human being is special, created in the image of God. But can such sentiments be meaningful? That’s the challenge. In his life, Jesus showed such love and respect for all people, especially the sick and suffering, the despised and rejected, that even his closest friends and followers could not understand him, let alone the religious leaders or the politicians. It cost him his life. But it is that life, that love, that respect for even the least among us that fires and inspires us to challenge broken systems and seek to build new ones. It applies to education, training, skills and society. And it involves us all.