Bridging the belonging gap.

The Centre for Social Justice’s Two Nations report highlights a nation divided by economic disparity, social mobility barriers and educational inequalities. With children and young people amongst the hardest hit by these challenges, WeMindTheGap’s CEO Ali Wheeler reflects on the role of education in enabling young people to develop a sense of belonging in society.

The Two Nations report paints a stark picture for our society, highlighting a ‘widening gulf between mainstream society and a depressed and poverty stricken underclass’ and reveals a widening gap between those who can get by, and those who can’t.

This gap was further widened by the impact of successive lockdowns during the Covid pandemic, which saw a rise in mental health conditions which have only been exacerbated further by the cost of living crisis which followed.

Our work at WeMindTheGap has shown us that children and young people are amongst those who have felt the impact of these disparities most acutely, particularly when it comes to education and future employment prospects.

Our Big Conversation project in Wrexham, part funded by the UK Government through the UK Shared Prosperity Fund in partnership with Wrexham County Borough Council, engaged over 400 18-21 year olds and found that 46% of young people are experiencing loneliness, while 37% said they’d lost interest in education, This is reflected further in Centre for Social Justice figures which show that the number of severely absent pupils has soared by over 160% since the pandemic to record levels.

More than half told us that even when they are with people they know, they don’t feel they belong, while many felt they lack the social skills such as resilience, motivation and initiative to be part of the workplace and so are finding it difficult to find, secure and stay in work.

Amongst all these findings whether it’s on a national scale or at a more local level one thing is very clear – young people are increasingly lacking a sense of belonging and this is widening the gap between those that can access opportunities and those that can’t.

Whilst the stark gaps highlighted in the report cut across all aspects of society, we believe at WeMindTheGap that the school absence crisis is exacerbating the inequalities highlighted by the Centre for Social Justice – if young people don’t feel they belong in school, their whole future is changed because as a society we measure their success on how well they do in exams.

Measures being introduced in some areas to tackle this crisis such as attendance mentors are unlikely to get to the real heart of the challenge of how we build trust between schools and communities to build that sense of belonging and how can all young people be recognised in society in an equitable way so that they can make a meaningful contribution?

This is one of the biggest challenges that we see at WeMindTheGap in our work with young people.

We believe young people deserve better, and our support programmes and mentoring schemes work one to one with young people who are often experiencing significant challenges such as loneliness and isolation, low confidence and self esteem, to help them develop their skills, experiences and be in a stronger position to grasp new opportunities.

Most importantly, we give them a place where they can belong, and create a more equitable environment for them where everyone has the chance to thrive and success.

Through this work and our vast experience engaging with some of the hardest to reach young people over the last ten years, we know that this journey for a young person takes time and significant support, which is why short term measures that often aren’t developed through an in depth understanding of the needs and challenging facing young people on an individual level, are unlikely to make any real progress.

As always, this takes investment and resources if we are to create long term, meaningful change and it’s not something that one organisation can achieve alone. We need to harness the connective power of the resources, expertise and passion of all organisations that are working to bridge the gaps for young people if we are to create a more inclusive and equitable society where they aren’t prisoners of their bedrooms but pilots of their own lives.

If you are working to provide support to young people or you’re an employer that’s keen to explore how you can help to create opportunities for young people, please do get in touch with us and we’d love to explore how we can work together.

We’re also committed to continuing to support and work alongside the Centre for Social Justice and its members to shine a light on the challenges facing young people and the role that organisations that WeMindTheGap can and are playing to create a brighter future for young people where everyone has a place where they feel they belong.

Ali Wheeler

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