OPINION: Karin Smyth MP on the role of local colleges in the Coronavirus recovery

(Newspaper column as seen in The South Bristol Voice in September 2020)

The Coronavirus crisis is far from over. We’re already seeing unemployment rise here in Bristol South, with more people having to apply for universal credit, we’re seeing apprenticeship starts drop off and local businesses facing real financial difficulty.

By now (Sept 2020), most young people have been out of school for six months. Exams were missed and schools and colleges had to find new ways to assign grades. We already have shockingly low rates of 18-year-olds from Bristol South going onto university (just 16 per cent, compared with 90 per cent elsewhere in the city). And we have a Government which focuses on Higher Education and treats Further Education as an afterthought – underfunded and undervalued. The current model is inadequate and unsustainable and we need a radical change to support what the Children’s Commissioner recently warned could be a ‘lost generation’ of teenagers.

City of Bristol College is perfectly placed to help young people through this crisis and could play a crucial role in retraining older people who have lost their jobs as the result of the pandemic. I’ve worked closely with the college over the years – understanding the challenges it faces and the support it needs and pressing the Government for this.

I started my annual South Bristol Jobs & Apprenticeships Fair at the South Bristol Skills Academy to help connect local people with employers and opportunities locally. The need for skills training has never been greater. Shortly before lockdown, I attended the ground breaking ceremony for the new Advanced Construction Skills Centre in Hengrove which, when open, will train the next generation of construction workers and skilled tradespeople. We fought for this facility here in Bristol South which creates much-needed opportunities for local people.

While young people have not been the main victims of the virus itself, the younger generation will bear the brunt of this crisis for years to come. The latest Social Mobility Foundation report found that young people in “left behind” neighbourhoods – which include parts of my constituency – are 34% more likely to be unemployed than the UK average. I recently joined an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) which looks at this very issue.

Following my ask to the Minister around Government funding for 16-19 year olds, I was pleased to see them u-turn and invest £96 million into this area – I’m disappointed that it’s rerouted fundings from schools budgets, rather than additional though. And it won’t undo a decade of underfunding in the sector.

It is vital that we have a comprehensive ongoing support package for young people or we’ll all be living with the consequences of this for decades to come.

Are you a young person or the parent of a young person? If so, please do share your experiences with me via email: karin.smyth.mp@parliament.uk