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The answer to uemployment - not just jobs but skills
2/2/2017 11:03:55 PM
April 12 2016

“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.

Positive Psychology
2/2/2017 11:01:51 PM

August 2016

I’ve recently received the final draft – now properly edited and set out – of a chapter I was asked to write for a Reader in Positive Psychology, to be published in 2017 (Routledge International Handbook of Critical Positive Psychology—a Synthesis for Social Change). Positive Psychology is a relatively new discipline and seeks to understand what gives people the determination and inner strength to go on in the face of the overwhelmingly negative evidence which is daily presented to us. I am by nature an optimist. I tend to think positively, looking to find solutions to problems rather than allowing those problems to burden and overwhelm me. But I also recognise the fact that, in many aspects of my life, there are always loose ends which I never quite manage to get hold of or tie up. Living with uncertainties and with unresolved issues is part of our human existence.

To put it bluntly, despite our dreams of and hopes for a just and loving world where people of different nations, faiths, ethnicities and cultures can live together peaceably, the evidence suggests that this is always just round the next corner. And the brutality of reality, the sheer overwhelmingness of negative evidence, should be enough to convince us that our deepest longings are unachievable. Add to this the environmental catastrophe awaiting us in the coming century, caused both by human activity and the forces of nature - and the prospects for any positive vision of the future wear rather thin. And yet, we press on, in the hope that a better future can and will be created.

The title of my chapter, by the way, is The Brutality of Reality. In it, I try to address the subject of work. The mundane level of the workplace is, in most people’s experience, anything but mundane. It shapes how and where they live, their values and attitudes, their standard of living and their hopes for the future. In times of economic uncertainty, conformity to the prevalent culture of the employer or sponsor may seem the wisest course of action. Questioning, challenging or whistleblowing may turn out to be personally counter-productive in the longer term.

My chapter looks at work in the broader context of how we cope with the pressures of everyday living. And one of the people I cite is Hannah Arendt, a Jewish German-born political theorist who escaped the Nazi Germany and settled in the USA. She was present at the trial and conviction in 1961 of Adolf Eichmann, one of Hitler’s closest henchmen and the architect of the Holocaust. She coined a poignant phrase: “the banality of evil.” The way people were imprisoned, abused and slaughtered in the death camps of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald and elsewhere had become, for Eichmann and so many others, routine, normal, commonplace - banal.

We are rightly quick to condemn such appalling behaviour, and yet we are daily presented with human suffering broadcast into our living rooms, making us almost banal about the suffering we see on our TVs. We watch as children starve in Somalia, refugees flounder in the seas off Greece and Italy, families clamber through the rubble of their homes in Syria – and yet we deplore the sheer cheek of people thinking they can just turn up here in our country to live or work.

The great British EU membership debate has done the world a massive disservice. Too many of our politicians – on both sides and within each of the main parties - have shown themselves, again, as people we just cannot trust. But some vital issues have been raised, not least to do with immigration and how we respond to the global refugee crisis.

Maybe a dose of Positive Psychology can help – but not without recognising the brutality of reality. We just don’t have a fairytale existence where everyone is nice to each other – much as we may wish for it! In the final section of my chapter, I write about a small piece of research among Afghan managers and professionals working in Kabul, Afghanistan. In the face of the reality of brutality – the ever-present danger of suicide bombers and violent criminals in an atmosphere of corruption and lawlessness – I found incredible resilience and a widespread determination to rebuild their shattered country.

My faith is what inspires me, but it also gives me a strong dose of realism and helps keep my feet on the ground. The Jesus I follow chose not to impose his rule by force or certainly didn’t try to deceive his hearers with false promises of prosperity and success. He specifically reminded them, repeatedly, of the cost of discipleship, the brutality of reality!

Because living in a small nation under the oppressive rule of Rome was tough. And in that context, Jesus urged people to live by faith, in hope and – most of all – through love, whatever their situation. And finally, he did what no other religion has ever dreamed of happening to its founder and focus – he accepted death, the ultimate proof not of divinity but defeat.

But that was not the last word. The brutality of reality, of defeat and despair, has been transformed into new life, resurrection – with the conviction that justice will out, love will triumph, the poor, the weak, the helpless and hopeless will be raised up.

The best example of Positive Psychology is Jesus’ Resurrection. It gives us real hope that, despite the brutality of reality, things can be different and better, our lives can be meaningful and our world can indeed move towards its true vocation and fulfilment.

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