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Then and Now: The Challenges Facing School Leavers

Leaving school can be both an exciting and frightening time. To leave behind the certainties of a school timetable, friends and teachers and step into an adult life of independence is a daunting experience for many, and may even involve moving to a new town or city to start university.

Of course, not every school leaver is preparing to go to university this September. For me, school was a safe place where I could hang out with my friends and get a hot meal. So when I left school at sixteen – with no formal qualifications and a baby on the way – it was a stark introduction to adulthood and the future looked bleak.

It didn’t feel like it at the time, but the ending of my school life brought with it the opportunity of a new beginning when I was able to go to my local Sure Start Centre. I have said many times just how life-changing that was for me and for my son. There I learnt the importance of what we would now call the home learning environment and the benefits of reading to my son, of playing with him and letting him know just how much I loved him. It was also critical in developing my confidence and self-esteem, which led to my decision to pursue an NVQ. I began to work as a home help carer, through which I joined a trade union. I was a trade union official when I was selected to run as the Labour candidate for Ashton-under-Lyne. I was first elected in 2015 and, following appointment to the front bench, was made Shadow Secretary of State for Education last July.

I do sometimes stop and take stock of the journey that I've been on. While it feels exhilarating, there’s a nagging thought that I can’t shake: how would sixteen-year-old Angela Rayner fare now, in 2017?

Her local Sure Start centre may not even exist because of cuts by the Coalition and Conservative governments, or, if it did, it may not have the resources to support and inspire her as she once would have been supported and inspired. She would undoubtedly struggle to make ends meet with the benefits freeze and might even have to resort to a food bank.

Even for our young people who are going to university in September, students from the lowest-income backgrounds, similar to my own, will face hurdles that their wealthier peers will not. We hear a lot from this government on the record numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds at university. They’re less keen to talk about the record numbers of working-class kids who are leaving university before they receive their qualifications. Nor are they that keen to talk about the eye-watering levels of debt students face. Students from the richest 30% of households starting university this September will graduate with an average debt of £43,000. That in itself is shocking enough before you digest the fact that their peers from the poorest 40% of households will accrue even more debt: an average of £57,000, largely due to the abolition of maintenance grants by the Tories.

This is why the Labour party pledged to abolish tuition fees in our 2017 General Election Manifesto, For the Many, Not the Few. Our young people shouldn’t be burdened with a mountain of debt before they even have a chance to start earning a full-time wage. There are steps that we have called on the government to take that would immediately alleviate this burden: scrap the rise in tuition fee loans interest rate to 6.1%, which is extortionate compared to the 0.25% base rate and the 3-4% average mortgage interest rate, and reinstate maintenance grants. With typical short-sightedness, they have refused to do so.

However, university isn’t and shouldn’t be seen as the only route to education and a fulfilling career, which is why our manifesto also set out our plans for a National Education Service. The NES, like the NHS, would provide lifelong learning, from cradle to grave, free at the point of use. It would provide the funding and support needed for young people who do not want to go down the traditional university route and for those, like me, who want to take a different direction: further education and professional training.

To the young people who get the exam results that they’re hoping for this August: congratulations. Take pride in your achievements and keep going, no matter what hurdles you face.

If things don't go the way you hoped or expected: give yourself the time to be upset, but not too much time. Now you need to dust yourself down and assess your options. What seems like an ending is sometimes a detour. And don’t listen to anyone who says otherwise: at sixteen and pregnant, clutching a letter that detailed my failures in black and white, I was told that I would amount to nothing. I chose otherwise. 

Work areas: Education.