I’ve long had reservations about the classification “NEET”; young people are particularly prone to being pigeonholed, often in unhelpful ways: from mods and rockers to hoodies, widely adopted labels have never done them much justice.
There is no such thing as a “typical” NEET, just a wide range of young people facing different challenges and circumstances. Far greater flexibility is needed to respond to the NEETs problem effectively; the more diverse the range of options to help them, and the more flexibility the agencies concerned enjoy, the more appropriate our response will be.
Up and down the country, the young people I meet have ambition. They want to get on with their lives, to gain skills and knowledge, and they recognise that a place at university or an apprenticeship can help them achieve this. The investment we make in our young people is our gift to future generations, but the unavoidable fact that so many young people in Britain have not enjoyed the benefits of that investment is reflected throughout the country.
The Labour government spent millions on a bewildering succession of schemes, to little effect. The number of 20–24 year olds who were NEET grew from 12.1% to 17% between 2003 and 2008 – and this while the economy was still booming. At the last count, some 874,000 young people aged 16–24, about one in seven of the total, were not in any form of education or work. For a nation that cares about fairness and opportunity, that is unacceptable.
Although most young people progress smoothly from education to their first job, the prospects are poor for those who struggle to make this critical transition. Being NEET for six months or more increases the risk of continued unemployment later in life, poorer health, mental illness and criminality. And you are more likely to become NEET if you perform poorly at school, were bullied or persistently tuanted.
But this Government will not repeat the mistakes of the previous one. Belying our short time in office, our response already stretches across many different ministerial portfolios. Iain Duncan Smith, for example, is tackling youth unemployment through the introduction of the Work Programme, simplifying the benefits system and introducing the Universal Credit, all so that fewer young people will languish on benefits and more can move into work.
As for my own work, I recently announced that we will reform careers guidance through the creation of a single, all-age careers service. We will act to restore professionalism to careers advisers, helping to guarantee the quality and utility of the advice young people and adults receive. I am determined to ensure that everyone has the guidance and support currently available to the most privileged. Good guidance, to match wherewithal to aspiration, is at the heart of social mobility and social justice.
For those that do become NEET, we will ensure that services are available that reflect individual circumstances. No-one can predict when they or others might need support, so the Government’s approach is to reduce the risk of becoming NEET in the first place. Early intervention is far more effective than reacting when things go wrong. That’s why we are protecting and refocusing Sure Start, and introducing the pupil premium, which will help schools tackle the inequalities inhibit social justice.
We also recognise that, in order to maximise the benefit of our investment in children, we need to continue to invest in their development right through to adulthood. Progression is the key to ensuring that we have the high levels of skills and knowledge, both academic and practical, demanded by the economy.
The Department for Education is committed to both full participation in education and training for 16–17 year-olds and raising the participation age to 18 by 2015. Young people will continue to be a priority for help, with funding for skills training through to the age of 25. We will fund any young person aged 16–19 who wants to learn.
But, resources aside, responsiveness has been limited by bureaucracy. Our reforms to how schools, colleges and other training providers are funded will make the system simpler, meaning that, in future, funding really will follow learners. In addition, we are increasing the number of adult apprenticeships by 75,000 over this Parliament and introducing pre-apprenticeships for those who need help to be ready for a full apprenticeship.
Whilst it is important to have the right training routes in place, it is critical that schools and colleges have the flexibility to develop and deliver programmes that work. This means accessible training, sometimes focused on qualifications and sometimes not, and other interventions to help people deal with life-limiting challenges like homelessness and addiction; and crucially, support, guidance and mentoring to provide young people with trustworthy role-models for a responsible adulthood.
To achieve this, we need to reform post-16 education and the skills system to respond to the needs of young people. With the new flexibilities and freedoms already announced, schools, colleges and others working with young people have a simplified funding system and more freedom.
We are working to ensure that the linguistic currency of the word “NEET” in our language is brief. From academies and the new University Technical Colleges that will enable 14-19 year olds to develop high-level technical skills, to improved careers advice that will help young people make informed choices about the right routes, this government’s education reforms are considered, coherent and consistent.