Chris Skidmore is Member of Parliament for Kingswood and a member of the Education Select Committee.
In 1999, the Social Exclusion Unit in No 10 Downing Street, came up with a particular term or acronym to define a group of young people: those not in education, employment or training, otherwise known as NEET. In creating such a term, the Unit did not just create another piece of jargon. The term helped policy makers for the next fifteen years to focus upon solutions for a particular group of young people who desperately needed attention.
Today, it is unthinkable that we would not judge a government on what its strategy might be to tackle the country’s NEET population. It is not the term itself that matters. Instead, the conscious creation of a definition of a section of the population that has previously been without a voice in itself creates a question to which we ourselves as policy makers then need to search for answers. A lens has been formed through which we can view a landscape that has been previously obscured.
The only problem with defining NEETs as an at risk group of young people who should be monitored, with public policy held accountable for a reduction in the NEET population, as the 2004 public service agreement target attempted to achieve, is that the focus is centred around the output, rather than how the simple outcome of becoming a NEET could ever have happened. By the time a young person is not in education, employment or training, attempting to find a solution to their desperate problem, while genuine and entirely correct, fails to understand the real question: why was this young person allowed to fall into the situation that they are in? How could the school that they once attended let this happen? What did they do to prevent this from happening?
Tragically, the truth is we know which pupils are at the greatest risk of becoming NEET from an early age, usually from 11, if not before. It is said that the strongest indicator of whether a young person will be NEET is their GCSEs results – just a quarter of current NEETs have obtained the benchmark five good GCSEs.
These are today’s NEETs: but what about the NEETs of the future? For pupils born in this millennium, due to choose their GCSE options this year, already over 120,000 are at risk of becoming the NEETs, simply because they are already underperforming at key stage tests and not mastering the basics in the 3Rs.
Just 8 per cent of pupils who fail to obtain Level 4 at Key Stage Two results will go on to obtain five good GCSEs five years later. At Level 3 maths at Key Stage Two, just 13 per cent of pupils will go on to obtain a grade C at Maths GCSE; worryingly, 40 per cent of pupils who obtained a Level 4 in maths Key Stage 2 do not go on to achieve a grade C five years later. These two statistics indicate that we know from an early age that there is a problem: yet it is a problem which we prefer to hide until the inevitable outcome of educational failure becomes horrendously real: a young person, without the qualifications they need, unable to find work.
This is why we need a new characteristic that should be monitored in all schools, for which schools should be held accountable, and report data to the Department of Education so that we can understand the scale of the challenge better. By introducing a new category of pupils ‘at risk of educational disadvantage’, from a far earlier age we will be able to help deal with the problems of at risk groups, not currently defined. A pupil’s progress through school needs to be charted far more acutely, not merely for understanding whether they have achieved their potential or not: for some pupils, the risk, and consequences, of educational failure is simply too great to ignore.
In education, accountability matters. There are some who turn their backs against ‘testing’: the truth is that they turn their backs against ensuring that the pupils in most need of help get the help they need most. But first we need the measure in place for aspirations to be redefined, and the bar to be raised. This present government has recognised the value of creating new data sets and performance measures as means for raising standards in schools.
The introduction of the English Baccalaurate or EBAC as a performance measure in schools would be a comparable example. I believe that introduction of the EBAC will be in time recognised as one of the most important measures that this government has introduced. History GCSE entries are now the highest they have been for 16 years, modern languages entries have risen by 18 per cent, entries in the separate sciences are the highest they have been for 16 years, geography entries are the highest they have been for nine years.
With the introduction of ‘Progress 8’ measures in 2016, now would be the ideal opportunity to introduce a national benchmark category of ‘pupils at risk of educational disadvantage’. With new accountability measures intending to look at the progress that pupils make across eight subjects, with attainment at Key Stage 4 being compared with what pupils were predicted to achieve when they left primary school aged 11.
Under current proposals, pupils who score 29 points on their Key Stage 2 tests will be expected to achieve eight C grades at GCSE. Schools will be monitored on their ability to improve the level of progress that pupils are expected to make across these eight subjects. This will now become the new floor target for schools, so if pupils make an average of half a grade less progress than expected across their eight subjects, schools will be judged to be underperforming. No doubt schools will also be expected to continue to formally monitor and record the performance of Free School Meals pupils. But with the formal introduction of a new category of pupils, those who we know from Key Stage Two are at risk of educational disadvantage, I would hope that we could begin to create a renewed awareness about the causes and consequences of educational failure: and above all, the need for early intervention to prevent its occurrence from happening in the first place.