Changing mindsets about young people

Written by
Saeed Atcha, CEO, Youth Leads UK

06 Mar 2020

06 Mar 2020 • by Saeed Atcha, CEO, Youth Leads UK

Saeed Atcha MBE, DL is CEO of charity Youth Leads UK and the government’s social mobility commissioner. He explains why business has a huge role to play in progressing social mobility.

It’s not where you are that needs to change, but the opportunities need to be there to allow you to change. Later today, I’m taking my mum for her Universal Credit appointment. This could have been me – seeking work and receiving state support. 

My high-school corridors are where my future could have forked. I was living on a council estate on the peripheries of criminal justice teams, brought up by a single mum, in and out of care when she became unwell. 

I was a back-chatting brat, but inquisitive and entrepreneurial. I remember the slap downs to my ambition, painfully. A teacher took a school magazine project out of my hands. “You need to focus on your GCSEs instead,” she told me. 

It wasn’t all about grades for me. I wanted, and, in hindsight, needed, something to focus on. After this, the magazine became more than a project that passed the time — I wanted to prove that teacher wrong. 

Anti-youth rhetoric

At the same time, the anti-youth rhetoric was building because of the fallout from the 2011 riots, vilifying young people as animals, scum and yobs — headlines reflected at me from the newspapers in my local corner shop. 

I knew the conversation needed to change and I wanted to see young people leading it. I set up Xplode Magazine when I was 15. Today, the magazine is part of a larger charity, Youth Leads UK, that I serve as CEO. 

Social mobility is all about giving young people the best chance in life, no matter their background, and it has defined me. From a kid in care to government commissioner for social mobility. I admit that my journey is somewhat extraordinary because when I talk to young people I hear that most are just striving for a steady job. 

Breaking the vicious circle

We consistently see that young people lack experience and are getting rejected for jobs because of it. It’s a vicious circle that needs breaking, or we risk stalling social mobility even further. 

I don’t think it’s up to government alone to solve the “lamentable” social mobility track record. It was private-sector engagement through the Prince’s Trust’s Mosaic Enterprise Challenge that made me think ‘outside the box’ and see that there is more to life than GCSE grades. It was the mentors from businesses that came into school to show me that there was a ‘different’ life for me, and it was the open days to local employers that shone a light on opportunities I didn’t know existed. 

The state of social mobility is not entirely without hope. I’m meeting young people across the country who are using social action as a route to becoming more socially mobile, gaining key skills and developing communities around them. Young people care about the world — especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. How can we capitalise on this? 

Forging a practical pathway

I’m proud to be a social mobility commissioner because I want to give back to a country that’s given so much to me and bring young people’s voices to the top table at the heart of decision making. 

My question to you is “how do we ensure that my story isn’t just a flash-in-the-pan case study but a practical pathway for many other young people? How do we change mindsets around the type of talent that we look for and hire?” 

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