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Too much young BAME talent is being wasted

6 min read

We need a system which rewards a young person’s hard work and ability, instead of discriminating on the grounds of class or race, writes Rushanara Ali

The government’s Race Disparity Audit states that “we believe how far you go in life should be based on how hard you work and nothing else”. The reality for millions of young people held back by prejudice, unconscious bias and lack of opportunities, makes a mockery of this laudable ambition. For this generation, social mobility remains a chimera. The chances they will get depend heavily, not on their talents, but on where they were born and what their parents did for a living.

The Race Disparity Audit addressed this as an intersectional issue. Those from Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities are disproportionately likely to be on a low income. And it’s getting worse, not better. A report by the OECD predicts that it could take an estimated five generations for a child from a poor UK family to earn a wage in-line with the national average.

So what is the solution to this waste of youthful energy and talent? Education and high-quality training is key to social mobility.

Over the last eight years, we’ve witnessed the eradication of vital services for some of our poorest families which were designed to create a level playing field. From the closure of Sure Start Children’s Centres, scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) for 16-18-year olds, increased higher education fees, student indebtedness and higher housing costs, this Government has failed to invest in the next generation.

In higher education institutions, students from poorer backgrounds struggle to overcome the social class and racial barriers that continue to lock them out of our top universities. The significance of this is that attendance from these universities translates to opportunity, power and influence. Currently, a quarter of all MPs graduated from either Oxford or Cambridge, the judiciary, the senior echelons of our civil service also remain over-represented by those who attended Oxbridge and other Russell Group universities. This drastically reduces the chances of someone from a BME or white working-class background making it into the corridors of power.

Even more disconcerting are the inequalities within employment. Those who managed to overcome barriers and achieve the top grades, are then stumped when trying to secure employment. The Race Disparity Audit found that ethnic minorities are under-represented at senior levels across the public sector, despite achieving the same grades as their white peers.

Academic achievements are not enough on their own. It’s well known that middle-class children are often able to gain career advantages through securing work experience and placements by tapping into the networks of family and friends. With 70% of jobs secured through networks, it’s clear to see that young people from poorer backgrounds with access to fewer professional networks into the world of work do not have a level playing field when competing in the labour market.

As a result, independent institutions and charities, often inadequately funded, have been left to address the government’s failures. Before entering Parliament, frustrated by seeing how many young people struggled to get into training and jobs, I co-founded charities like Futureversity and UpRising, which develop young people’s employability and leadership skills. This year UpRising marks its 10th birthday and over the past decade we have helped thousands of young people around the country get into jobs, leadership roles, start up their own businesses, charities and social enterprises. There are extraordinary stories of success often against adversity.

At 16 years of age, Poppy Noor was homeless. Two years later, she went on to study at Cambridge University. Surrounded by people from a different background, she lost confidence in her abilities. UpRising helped her to understand her value and unique story, and that she could help others in her community. Since graduating, Poppy was awarded a Scott Trust Bursary to do a Masters at Goldsmiths, and is the Commissioning Editor for the Guardian Housing Network. She also trained as a social worker, and runs projects to get young homeless people registered to vote.

Zarlasht Halamzia arrived in the UK from Afghanistan at the age of 15 and was granted asylum. She applied to the first ever UpRising programme a few years later and went onto co-found The Refugee Trauma Initiative in 2016, an organisation providing psychological first aid to refugees stranded in Greece. In 2018, Zarlasht was one of 20 out of a pool of 20,000 to be awarded the inaugural Obama Fellowship for exemplary civic leadership.

Also supported by UpRising, Kawsar Zaman grew up in my constituency and became the first in his family to go to university. After studying at LSE, Oxford and Harvard, he now works for Allen and Ovary. And Alvin Carpio, who grew up in Newham, described growing up in east London where “you could see Canary Wharf from afar, the power, money and that just seemed like a world away which we can never actually get into”. Alvin has recently founded the Fourth Group whose mission is to create a new politics for the fourth industrial revolution.

Learning from what works, we are now launching a new institution which will recruits, train and deploy a million mentors to help a million young people over the next 10 years. Working with young people in FE colleges, youth organisations and universities we will help young people bridge the social divide and navigate their way into the world of work. In ten years’ time whether we achieve this ambition or not, we will have succeeded in breaking down some of the invisible barriers that hold so many young people back.

However, the work of such charities is a drop in the ocean without an ambitious and well-resourced response by the government to ensure today’s young people are not held back because of their background. It must start by restoring funding for high-quality careers advice, reinstating the entitlement to work experience for all young people and providing high-quality training and apprenticeships. The government needs to apply greater pressure on our universities to improve their representation of students from working class, BAME and other under-represented groups – in return for fair access funding – and ensure they do more to prepare students with the employability skills and networks for the world of work.

Then we need to transform fundamentally the ways young people navigate the first steps on their career ladders. Out must go the unfair advantages, the string-pulling and favour-calling, and in must come jobs and opportunities for those brilliant, talented young people currently being held back.


Rushanara Ali is Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow




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