The life chances of young people in Scotland: report to the First Minister

Recommendations for improving the life chances of young people from less advantaged backgrounds.

Section 1 - Introduction

Tackling poverty in Scotland is a priority of the Scottish Government and is extremely challenging in the current political and economic context. In my first report, 'Shifting the Curve'[1], I recommended a review of the life chances of young people in Scotland. This report is the follow up to that recommendation. Alongside an evidence review I commissioned[2], this report outlines key issues facing young people today, and offers recommendations for government, employers, and for wider society, to improve the life chances of young people from less advantaged backgrounds.

The last twenty years have transformed our understanding of the first years of children's lives. We now understand the importance of high quality early-years services - including health, education, and childcare - to ensure children get the best start in life. But a good start is not inoculation. High quality early years experience needs to be followed up with good primary and secondary education. Good schools have to lead to high quality destinations, including not only university but excellent post-school training and development, meaningful modern apprenticeship placements, decent employment opportunities, and the chance to be independent from parents. For today's young people, none of these issues are straightforward and, for many, there are significant barriers on the road to adulthood.

The review focuses on the age band of 16-24 years[3], as choices of career, further training, employment, and housing can be particularly problematic for young adults. Decisions at this stage can set the course for adulthood. Late adolescence and early twenties is a period of life fraught with temptations and risks, when parents have reducing control and the influence of peer groups grows. It is a time when decisions can be complex and options are often limited by prior educational attainment.

Within this age band, the report pays particular attention to school leavers who are not going on to university as a first destination. Free university tuition is a fantastic advantage for those who go on to higher education. But the overall picture suggests that the university sector has had greater protection from hard financial times than the further education and the college sector. A further challenge is that, in Scotland, the minimum school leaving age is 16 but, for the UK, the 'National Living Wage' is not automatically paid until the age of 25 - before this, the only guarantee is a lower minimum wage, which is unlikely to bring the independence young people often look for.

This generation of young adults face challenges their parents largely didn't have to deal with. What we have to do, as policy makers and practitioners, is to make those challenges less daunting so young people can respond positively when they meet them. At this particular moment, it would be naïve to hope to turn the clock back completely. But we should look to make things better where we can.

The material within this report has been developed from two main sources:

  • A formal review of the evidence, which I commissioned from Scottish Government analysts, on the challenges facing Scotland's young people, particularly those from low income backgrounds. This has been published separately and is available on the Scottish Government website.[4]
  • Engagement with a wide range of experts. The main experts, of course, are young people themselves. With this in mind, I commissioned a series of small and informal engagement events with a range of young people, working with the Scottish Youth Parliament, the Prince's Trust, Black and Minority Ethnic Infrastructure in Scotland ( BEMIS), South Lanarkshire College, and Cyrenians. We also spoke to modern apprentices working in the Scottish Government. The sessions gave young people the chance to say what issues they considered to be most important, and how they might be dealt with. I'm not suggesting that these informal sessions provide representative samples (or sub-samples) of young people; but they were extremely useful in challenging my thinking and I've used what young people told me to illustrate some of the points I want to make. I also had a roundtable discussion with academics, and met a number of stakeholders with a key interest in these issues, many of whom echoed the issues raised by the young people I met.

The main body of the report sets out particular problems, as identified by the evidence and/or by young people themselves, and offers recommendations for further action: section 2 focuses on transitions, the labour market and pay, while sections 3 and 4 look at housing and mental health respectively.

Key Groups

The fundamental message from this work concerns the challenges of successful young adulthood: getting a job, setting up home, maintaining connections to friends and family. This is what we all want from life, but for some it is considerably harder than for others. So the report also weaves through examples from some groups of young people who face particular barriers: young people from a minority ethnic background, young disabled people, young carers, young parents and young people who have experience of the care system.

Key statistics from the evidence review4 set out some of the difficulties these groups face.

There are estimated to be 596,000 young adults (aged 16-24 years) in Scotland.

15% of young adults in Scotland report being from a minority ethnic group.[5]

  • Poverty rates are higher for adults from minority ethnic groups - 35% compared to 18% for white British groups in Scotland.
  • People from minority ethnic communities with good qualifications face greater barriers to finding work that matches their qualifications, and are more likely to be low paid than the majority white population.

11% of 16-24 young adults in Scotland are disabled.

  • Poverty rates are higher for households with a disabled adult - 23% compared to 18% for those without a disabled adult in Scotland.
  • Compared with all young people, those who are disabled face higher rates of unemployment and inactivity.

9% of young men and 12% of young women in Scotland are carers.

  • The poverty rate among UK working-age carers is 25%.[6]
  • Young carers (aged under 25) are more likely to report a mental health condition compared with people in this age group who are not carers.

3047 babies were born to women aged under 20 in Scotland in 2014 - the delivery rate was 20.3 per 1,000 women.[7]

  • Young mothers in Scotland have a high risk of poverty - 44%.
  • Early pregnancy is a significant predictor of negative outcomes in the transition from school to work and young mothers are more likely to have lower educational qualifications and employment levels.
  • Young mothers experience poorer mental health than older mothers.

4,602 young people (aged over 16) who left care were reported to be eligible for aftercare services in Scotland in 2016.

  • Care leavers are at greater risk of poor outcomes, including higher unemployment and homelessness, and worse mental health.
  • A recent report suggested that in England, 22% of female care leavers become teenage parents, about three times the national average.[8]
  • The transition period towards independence is when care leavers are at their most vulnerable.

One thing to bear in mind when looking at statistics of this kind is that writing on disadvantage can, by focusing on the percentage of risk linked to a particular characteristic, lose sight of the small numbers actually affected. For example, experience of care increases the risk of becoming a young parent. But only a small percentage of female care leavers have babies while very young. It is a higher percentage than the general population of young women, but it's still small. The presentation of the increased risk can, unless carefully handled, be stigmatising, and detract attention from the practical needs these young people have and the pragmatic solutions that might be available.

It is certainly true that, as the depth and complexity of disadvantage increases, responses need to be tailored to individual need. And needs will vary as much within as between groups. A tailored approach is inevitably more expensive and, in many cases, will require interventions from a number of agencies. However, improving outcomes for each of these groups - and, indeed, for those individuals who fall into more than one of these categories - should bring cost savings in the long term. It is also a principle of social justice: providing the same kinds of inputs to everyone, without thinking about differentiation, will always result in inequality of outcomes. Services should be specifically designed so as to iron out the inequality in personal circumstances that affects those facing disadvantage.

With that in mind, and where appropriate, the review considers how my recommendations should be tailored to make sure that the needs of different groups of young people are accounted for.

Key Cross-cutting Issues

Both 'place' and 'inclusive growth' are consistent themes in this report, appearing in the narrative and the recommendations.

'Place' as a policy idea comes in and out of fashion, but for me it has always been a central concept. For nearly all of us, a sense of home, of community, and of a network of family, friends and colleagues, all help define our lives. Family choices about school and work, and how easy it is to save money, build up assets, and improve your own well-being, are substantially influenced by your socio-economic status as well as where you live.

The Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation ( SIMD) illustrates, in a very immediate way, the spatial concentration of disadvantage in this country.[9] The supply of employment, the quality of jobs, competition for work and employment rates all vary by region and neighbourhood. Income from wages, housing costs and other living costs also vary substantially. In particular, people in rural areas face higher costs of living and worse access to services.[10] Many of the most important facilities, services and opportunities are often less accessible where they're needed the most.[11]

The geographical concentration of poverty, wealth and opportunity underlines the need for place-based approaches to addressing inequality. Place matters, particularly to those who are disadvantaged in the labour market, as research suggests they tend to have a more 'local focus' than the population as a whole.[12] Travel-to-work patterns show that disadvantaged people are less mobile and more reliant on public transport.[13] In both urban and rural areas, lower qualified and unemployed people tend to have least flexibility in where they look for jobs. Social networks are also important for employability: young people living in deprived areas have been found to have high 'bonding capital' with networks of family and friends important for support, but limited 'bridging capital' of links to different networks of employment information, including experience and knowledge of other areas and communities.[14] I say more about this in the main body of the report.

Ensuring that all places have the opportunity to prosper is an important aspect of achieving what is called 'inclusive growth', a policy idea to which the Scottish Government is committed. Its premise is that social and economic goals can support one another, rather than be in tension. A strategic approach to inclusive growth is not interested simply in a larger economy, in terms of GDP. It wants to ensure that the benefits of growth are properly shared across the socio-economic gradient. Over recent years, economic growth in developed economies has mainly benefitted the better-off in society. An inclusive growth strategy aims to reverse that trend, ensuring that all members of society both contribute to and benefit from economic growth. Inclusive growth and place-based approaches are both crucial to achieving economically, physically and socially sustainable communities where young people can flourish.

The Scottish Government's Fair Work agenda is central to ensuring that growth becomes more balanced across different parts of Scotland. Examples of how this work is being taken forward include the Labour Market Strategy, which sets out how the labour market and wider social and economic policies interact to drive inclusive growth; and the Scottish Business Pledge, a partnership between government and business to promote fairness, equality and sustainable economic growth. There has also been a focus on strengthening regional economies through new partnership approaches: the City Region Deals - agreements between the Scottish Government, the UK Government and local government, currently in Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Inverness and Highland - are designed to bring about long-term strategic approaches to improving regional economies, and will support inclusive growth.


Email: Andrew Fraser,

Phone: 0300 244 4000 – Central Enquiry Unit

The Scottish Government
St Andrew's House
Regent Road

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