A young person being ‘Not in Education, Employment or Training’ (NEET) can be particularly harmful and have long-term ‘scarring’ effects. Individuals who spend time NEET are more likely to be unemployed, receive lower wages, have a criminal record, report lower levels of life satisfaction and job satisfaction and suffer from health problems such as depression. At the end of 2021 there were over 700,000 16 to 24-year-olds classified as NEET in England – equivalent to 1-in-10 young people. Worse still, despite endless initiatives and interventions from successive governments, the proportion of young people who are NEET after leaving school or college stands at 12.6 per cent – just 0.4 per cent lower than in 2016, and only 0.7 per cent lower than two decades earlier.
Far from being a homogenous group, there are many reasons why a young person may become detached from education, employment and training. Only around 40 per cent of young people recorded as NEET are currently ‘unemployed’, with the remaining 60 per cent being ‘economically inactive’ (e.g. long-term or temporarily sick due to poor physical and / or mental health; looking after their family or home). Previous reviews have often presented a long list of characteristics that are associated with being NEET, such as poor school attendance and behaviour or having learning difficulties. However, from a policymaking perspective, it is more important to focus on factors that are predictive of future NEET status rather than merely correlating with it.
In about two-thirds of cases, a young person’s overall labour market trajectory can be predicted correctly based on four main ‘risk factors’ at age 16: low educational attainment; low self-confidence / self-esteem; early pregnancy; and a disadvantaged family background. Teenage pregnancy and disadvantaged family backgrounds are clearly important issues, but it is not realistic to expect our education system alone to solve them. Instead, this report analyses the evidence base on various aspects of our secondary education system (ages 11-18) that are within the control of ministers and civil servants, and which could therefore be reconfigured to improve young people’s educational attainment and increase young people’s confidence and self-esteem.
Careers information, advice and guidance
Access to high quality careers information, advice and guidance (IAG) is an important component of preventing young people from becoming NEET, yet some individuals must overcome numerous hurdles when trying to progress to the next stage of their career. For example, a young person experiencing financial hardship may have limited time and attention for engaging with IAG. Young people from less privileged backgrounds can also struggle to navigate the qualification landscape and have more limited knowledge of career options as well as being less confident about reaching out to careers services. Research has also identified a disconnect between the sectors young people aspire to work in and the jobs that are typically available, making it even more important that young people at risk of ending up NEET get the best possible support and advice.
The evidence shows that high quality careers IAG can make a tangible difference to young people’s future trajectories. Analysis by the government-funded Careers and Enterprise Company (CEC) found that if the most disadvantaged schools met all eight of the ‘Gatsby Benchmarks’ for providing high-quality careers advice to young people, they would see an average increase of 31 per cent in the chances of their pupils securing a sustained education, employment or training outcome. Furthermore, research by the Education and Employers Taskforce found that the more times a young person encounters employers (e.g. work experience) during their secondary school years, they are less likely to become NEET and more likely to earn a higher wage later on.
There have been several well-intentioned government programmes to improve IAG over the past two decades. Around £500 million a year was spent on ‘Connexions’, which provided a national careers guidance service from 2001 to 2012 (alongside support and advice on housing, health and relationships) but it was frequently criticised by both young people and independent inquiries for the quality of its provision. Connexions has since been replaced by an increasingly disjointed and confusing landscape that includes, among other things, ‘Careers Hubs’ and Enterprise Advisors (overseen by the CEC), the National Careers Service (which operates nationally through contracted independent providers), ‘Youth Hubs’ (run by the Department for Work and Pensions) and the ‘Youth Offer’ and local employment advisors based in Jobcentre Plus offices. The evidence shows that the considerable promise held by some of these initiatives in terms of supporting ‘at risk’ young people will have a greater chance of being realised with better coordination.
Subject and curriculum options
Research has shown that for many young people, studying academic subjects at school is ‘uninspiring and irrelevant’. Meanwhile, vocational courses and qualifications have repeatedly been shown over the past 20 years to have a positive impact on the attainment and self-esteem of those most likely to become NEET. The ‘Increased Flexibility Programme’ (IFP) in the 2000’s, which offered vocational learning (often at local colleges) alongside academic subjects at school, was not only popular but also improved pupils’ “attitudes, behaviour and social skills”. Separate reviews from the National Foundation for Educational Research and Ofsted reported that pupils progressed at least as well in their IFP qualifications as they did in their school subjects, if not better. Both teachers and pupils agreed that the IFP had led to “improved confidence” and “greater maturity” among participating pupils and helped them “engage (and in some cases re-engage) into learning.”
Other vocationally oriented approaches have noted a similar impact. A review by Ofsted of curriculum flexibility in 2007 found that vocational courses “reengaged many students”, “improved their self-confidence”, “motivated them to attend more regularly” and “raised the achievement of …those at risk of disaffection or disengagement”. What’s more, “some parents spoke movingly of how schools had helped change their children’s approach to learning and taking control of their lives.” More recently, the DfE’s own research has shown that Technical Awards – currently the only vocational qualifications approved for 14 to 16-year-olds – are associated with a 23 per cent reduction in unauthorised absences, a 10 per cent reduction in fixed period exclusions and a 62 per cent reduction in permanent exclusions. Despite this obvious potential, GCSE exam entries outnumber Technical Awards by 14 to 1.
Despite such an array of compelling evidence regarding the benefits of vocational courses, the Government has spent the last decade or so prioritising traditional academic subjects above all else. For example, the ‘EBacc’ and ‘Progress 8’ accountability measures focus almost exclusively on a school’s ability to get their pupils to pass exams in academic subjects, which has contributed to a dramatic decline in the teaching of creative and technical courses. Furthermore, institutions such as University Technical Colleges (UTCs) that offer a more vocational curriculum have been undermined by nearby schools using them as “a dumping ground for the difficult or disaffected”, even when many pupils (including higher achievers) may wish to pursue more practical subjects. Despite this disappointing behaviour from some schools, fewer learners from UTCs subsequently become NEET (3 per cent) compared to the national average (5 per cent). Clear favouritism from government towards academic subjects is thus a bad outcome for young people who may be more likely to end up NEET but often remain interested in, and potentially well suited to, vocational and technical education.
Apprenticeships, traineeships and work experience
Spending time in the workplace can be beneficial for young people, particularly those at risk of disengaging. However, many pupils do not get the chance to experience the world of work before the very end of their time at school or college, if at all. This is partly explained by the 2011 ‘Wolf Review’ insisting that there should be “no substantial degree of specialisation” before the end of Key Stage 4 (age 16), resulting in pupils being expected to take classroom-based GCSEs instead. In addition, employers are often hesitant to recruit young people due to concerns about their possible lack of maturity, the absence of soft skills (e.g. communication) and not having the required skills or competencies for the job. Furthermore, the apprenticeship levy incentivises employers to invest in their existing workforce rather than taking on young people, with over half of all ‘apprentices’ now aged 25 and over.
Previous schemes that gave pupils a chance to gain work experience and qualifications have often proved immensely successful. For example, the ‘Young Apprenticeships’ programme, which began in 2004, allowed pupils aged 14 to 16 to spend two days a week in the workplace. As a result, 95 per cent of participants progressed onto Further Education / training, with 19 per cent moving onto an apprenticeship. An evaluation by Ofsted found that pupils were “enthusiastic, well-motivated and well-behaved” and they “spoke highly of the provision which they enjoyed a great deal”, with pupils reporting that they were “treated more like adults”. Teachers also noted that “young apprentices took more responsibility for their own learning than their peers in school did”. Employers were equally impressed, and felt the programme helped pupils link “their school studies to the world of work” and “developed skills and attributes which made them more employable”.
Similarly, the ’Student Apprenticeship’ pilots – again for 14 to 16-year-olds – found that the vast majority of training providers, schools, colleges and young people involved believed there were ‘real benefits’. This was most evident in the way it helped “under-achieving pupils with low motivation, to develop a sense of direction to help steer their transition from school into a trade or a career they were interested in”. The majority of the participants had low or no academic qualifications as well as low career aspirations, having “largely disengaged with the school as a learning environment”. Despite these considerable barriers, the programme was “successful both in re-engaging the young person with the learning process and in preparing them for successful study [as an apprentice]”, with employers and training providers seeing a “marked improvement” in their attitude.
More recently, Traineeships have offered 16 to 24-year-olds the opportunity to develop their skills and gain experience in the workplace. Traineeships have struggled to attract learners since they began in 2014, with only 15,000-20,000 starts a year. Nonetheless, 92 per cent of trainees would recommend it to others and a survey by the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) found that 79 per cent of young people who were NEET thought traineeships could help them to access good quality work. Moreover, an official evaluation by the Department for Education showed that 75 per cent of trainees moved into further education, an apprenticeship or employment within 12 months of starting a traineeship. This figure is particularly laudable as almost half of trainees had no GCSE passes at A*-C (compared to 18 per cent among non-trainees) and trainees were also 22 percentage points more likely to have Special Educational Needs as well as having a poorer school attendance record and experiencing more exclusions.
Financial incentives for young people and employers
Disadvantaged young people may be unable to fully engage in their education when they need to cover costs such as transport to and from school / college, clothing (for work or interviews), course books and other required materials. Financial support given directly to young people can have a significant impact. From 2004 to 2011, an Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) of up to £30 week was available to 16 to 19-year-olds from lower-income households. Evaluations of the EMA, which distributed around £580 million a year from government at its peak, found that it improved student participation and attainment, particularly amongst those from deprived areas and from families with the lowest incomes. Despite these positive effects, the EMA was scrapped due to concerns over high deadweight costs. However, its replacement – the 16-19 Bursary Fund – only offers annual financial support totalling £150 million, making it considerably less generous than its predecessor.
Young people can also benefit from financial support being given to employers. The 2019 Employer Skills Survey of 80,000 organisations showed that around a quarter do not have enough spare time or resources to offer opportunities to younger recruits. Furthermore, research by the IES found that 15 per cent of employers reported financial costs as making it difficult to employ a disadvantaged young person specifically, with this being the main barrier for small businesses. Regardless, 42 per cent of employers showed enthusiasm for working with disadvantaged young people, which suggests that providing employers with additional support could unlock more job opportunities.
Government has sometimes used financial incentives to encourage more employers to create jobs for young people. During the pandemic, ‘incentive payments’ were available to employers of £3,000 for offering apprenticeships and £1,000 for offering traineeships. A decade earlier, ‘wage incentive payments’ of up to £2,275 were given for recruiting an unemployed 18 to 24-year-old and the ‘Apprenticeship Grant for Employers’ (AGE) offered a £1,500 grant per apprentice. In both of these previous schemes, the majority of recipients said that the payments had influenced their decision to recruit a young person. A fifth of recipients of the ‘wage incentive payments’ had even created an extra vacancy as a direct result of the payment. Small employers were also more likely to value the additional financial support. The AGE was found to be most effective at promoting apprenticeships when it was targeted at smaller organisations, and 76 per cent of recipients of the ‘wage incentive payments’ had less than 50 employees.
Academic and pastoral support
Young people without any A*-C grades in their GCSEs account for two-thirds of the NEET population. As a result, a number of interventions exist to improve the academic performance of lower-attaining pupils. For example, a teacher or teaching assistant can deliver short and regular one-to-one or small group tutoring sessions, with strong evidence to show that both approaches improve attainment. In response to the pandemic, the Government has invested hundreds of millions in a ‘National Tutoring Programme’ (NTP) to give schools access to high-quality subsidised tutoring. However, the NTP has only delivered 15 per cent of its target of two million courses in the current academic year, and just 44 per cent of pupils who received tuition last year were from disadvantaged families. In light of this lacklustre performance, Randstad – the current operator of the NTP – has been stripped of their contract and the £349 million of funding for tutoring will go directly to schools instead.
Another intervention designed to improve young people’s academic attainment is the GCSE English and maths resit policy, which states that students who are one grade below a ‘pass’ at age 16 must retake their GCSE in the relevant subject(s). However, only around 30 per cent of students resitting either subject go on to pass their GCSE by age 19. What’s more, Ofsted have warned that “the impact of repeated ‘failure’ on students should not be underestimated”, particularly in relation to damaging their confidence and self-esteem after several years of difficulties with the subject(s). Cambridge Assessment also flagged the potential for the resits to create resentment and demotivate students, finding that students tend to be disaffected by prior learning experiences. The resits policy is even harder to fathom when the DfE allows students to study English and maths at lower levels (including ‘Functional Skills’ qualifications) after failing their GCSEs but not beforehand.
Research has shown that offering social and emotional support is another aspect of promoting young people’s academic progress and building their confidence. For example, the transition from primary to secondary school is known to be “a risk-point for vulnerable learners”, with a poor transition associated with “deleterious effects on self-esteem, depression and academic attainment at age 18”. Several ‘protective’ factors have been found to support successful transitions including curriculum continuity and effectively sharing information between schools. Even so, there is little evidence about how to best support young people at later transition points such as moving into post-16 learning. Another source of support for young people is mentoring, where they are paired with an older peer or adult who regularly meets with them and acts as a positive role model. The evidence suggests that mentoring only has a limited impact on building a young person’s confidence and raising their aspirations, although some studies have found more positive impacts for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and for non-academic outcomes such as attitudes towards school, attendance and behaviour.
Aside from academic interventions, a crucial component of pastoral support is mental health and wellbeing, as one in seven young people aged 11 to 19 experience at least one mental disorder and the peak age for onset is 14.5 years old. The percentage of young people who are NEET and have a mental health condition has almost tripled from 7.7 per cent in 2012 to 21.3 per cent last year. A review by the Early Intervention Foundation found that school-based mental health interventions could play a ‘crucial role’ in enhancing young people’s social and emotional skills to reduce low-level symptoms in the short term, but access to specialist practitioners and services is still essential. The Government has recently pledged to invest almost £400 million to tackle the growing mental health crisis, including setting a target of 400 mental health support teams to be in a third of schools by 2022-23. However, such measures have been criticised for ‘lacking ambition’ when the number of referrals to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services are 50 per cent higher in 2021 than they were in 2020, and over a third of children accepted onto waiting lists in 2020-21 are still waiting for their treatment to begin.
Such is the slow rate of improvement in the national NEET figures, it will take over 150 years on current trends to eradicate the problem of young people becoming NEET in this country. Consequently, this report proposes three major shifts in policy thinking to bring about a sustained fall in the number of young people who do not progress into education, employment or training.
First, a greater emphasis must be placed on prevention rather than cure – meaning that far more attention needs to be paid to preventing young people from leaving school or college with low self-esteem and poor academic attainment. Too often, government waits until a young person has already fallen through the cracks, only to then ask taxpayers to subsequently spend considerable sums of money trying to bring these young people back into the fold later. Not only is this desperately inefficient from a public expenditure perspective, but it is also an inexcusable waste of young people’s talents.
Second, the enduring bias towards studying academic subjects in a classroom must come to an end. Government ministers are right to set high expectations and offer an academic pathway to all pupils. Even so, this report has found compelling evidence that making pupils concentrate almost exclusively on academic subjects can undermine their motivation, aspirations and confidence. This is particularly objectionable when vocational courses have been repeatedly shown to increase pupils’ attainment and self-esteem.
Third, the various initiatives and programmes across government that strive to offer better support, better advice and better options for young people across the country need to be coordinated more effectively. There is an enormous amount of expertise and goodwill available, yet the analysis in this report suggests that it is not yet being fully utilised to help those young people at greatest risk of being left behind.
There are good empirical reasons to believe that the recommendations in this report will lead to more young people remaining engaged and motivated in secondary education by increasing their academic attainment and progress while also improving their confidence and self-esteem. Preventing young people from becoming NEET is thus a realistic and desirable goal, but this cannot be achieved without additional investment in young people and the institutions and organisations who work with them. In the aftermath of the pandemic, this investment – alongside the improved coordination of services for supporting vulnerable young people – cannot come soon enough.
New roles and responsibilities in government
- RECOMMENDATION 1: To create clearer accountability and responsibility in government for preventing young people from becoming NEET, the current role of ‘Minister for Skills’ at the Department for Education (DfE) should be converted into a ‘Minister for Skills and Youth Employment’ that is shared between the DfE and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
- RECOMMENDATION 2: To coordinate the support available to young people who are at risk of becoming NEET, a new government-funded service called ‘CareersLink’ should be created. CareersLink will bring together the Careers and Enterprise Company, the National Careers Service and ‘Youth Hubs’ to create a single one-stop-shop for young people aged 14 to 24 in England who require additional support and advice to find a suitable place in education, employment or training.
Ending the bias towards academic subjects
- RECOMMENDATION 3: To prevent the downgrading of non-academic courses in the curriculum, the two EBacc performance measures for secondary schools in England – the percentage of pupils entering the English Baccalaureate and the English Baccalaureate Average Point Score – should be withdrawn with immediate effect.
- RECOMMENDATION 4: To allow all pupils to study the subjects that suit their interests and abilities, the ‘Progress 8’ measure should be reformed. In future, pupils should be able to choose any six subjects alongside English and maths, which would then feed into a school’s Progress 8 score.
- RECOMMENDATION 5: To create a ‘level playing field’ between academic, vocational and technical education, a new Baccalaureate should be introduced for the final years of secondary education. This rigorous and flexible Baccalaureate would allow learners in state schools and colleges to select courses across three pathways: Academic (academic subjects and disciplines); Applied (broad areas of employment); and Technical (specific trades / occupations).
- RECOMMENDATION 6: To enhance the employability skills of younger learners and increase their engagement and progression, the DfE should create a new programme called ‘Young Traineeships’ for 14 to 16-year-olds. This will provide an extended work placement of 50 days over two years with a local employer during Key Stage 4 (approximately one day a week), the completion of which would be equivalent to a ‘pass’ (grade 4) in a GCSE subject.
Increasing attainment and confidence with English and maths
- RECOMMENDATION 7: To offer high-quality support to schools through the National Tutoring Programme, the Department for Education must focus its procurement for a new supplier from September 2022 on the quality of proposals rather than their price. This will help avoid a repeat of the mistakes with the previous contract.
- RECOMMENDATION 8: To prevent some young people from being made to experience repeated failure in English and maths from ages 11 to 16, the English and maths component of the Progress 8 measure should be expanded to include ‘Functional Skills’ qualifications in both subjects.
- RECOMMENDATION 9: To develop their literacy and numeracy skills, the Government should set a long-term goal of requiring all students to study two compulsory subjects – ‘Core English’ and ‘Core Maths’ – up to age 18. Students must continue studying both subjects until they achieve at least a ‘Pass’ at Level 3 (equivalent to A-levels).
More support for young people within schools and colleges
- RECOMMENDATION 10: To increase the number of young people who are eligible for financial support in their final years of education, the 16-19 Bursary Fund should be increased from £150 million a year to £225 million a year for the start of the academic year 2022/23.
- RECOMMENDATION 11: To improve the availability and accessibility of mental health services for young people, the Government should invest an additional £80 million by September 2022 to support those with the most complex needs. A further £75 million should be invested to accelerate the establishment of Mental Health Support Teams in education settings, with a new target of half of schools being supported in the academic year 2022/23.
- RECOMMENDATION 12: To create a stronger evidence base regarding what contributes to a successful ‘transition’ at ages 11, 14 and 16, the DfE should fund research trials that aim to identify the most effective practices and approaches at each transition point.
Encouraging more employers to recruit young people
- RECOMMENDATION 13: To build capacity among employers to recruit and support young people, financial incentives ranging from £500 to £5,000 should be available to organisations offering apprenticeships, traineeships and T Level placements. These incentives should reflect the size of the company, the age of the recruit and the length of training required for the role.
- RECOMMENDATION 14: To stimulate more demand for, and supply of, apprenticeships for young people, Level 7 apprenticeships (equivalent to a Masters degree) should be removed from the scope of the apprenticeship levy and the requirement for 5% ‘co-investment’ from non-levy paying employers towards the cost of training younger apprentices should be scrapped.