Around 15 years ago a new tribe entered our lexicon: the NEETs, young people who are not in education, employment or training. Reducing their number was a priority for the Labour government of the day. The Social Exclusion Unit was tasked by the prime minister to drive progress, and he personally authored the foreword to their landmark 1999 report on the subject.
What was true then is true now: being NEET has very serious consequences. At the ages of 16 and 17 it means missing education, and at the age of 18 it means being unemployed. A combination of the two can mean the start of long-term unemployment, poverty and poor health, early single parenthood and the iniquitous cycle of inherited disadvantage.
In recent years the issue has fallen down the public agenda, but it has absolutely not gone away. One in eight of all the 18 year olds in England were NEET in 2013, and the rate was much higher in many large cities. More than 80,000 young people effectively joined the ranks of the unemployed that year alone. This is a huge problem with major consequences for our society and economy.
There are two basic reasons we have stopped talking about NEETs. The first is for a long time the problem looked intractable. There were almost exactly the same number of 16-18 year olds NEET in 1999 as there are now. We have got used to thinking of this being a ‘wicked problem’ about a group of young people who are too hard to help.
The other reason is that the NEET numbers are terribly confusing. The good news is more young people now stay on in education after they finish their GCSEs, and the overall 16-18 NEET numbers have finally started to fall. But this apparently benign picture is misleading. The number of young people who are NEET doubles between the ages of 17 and 18 and, ultimately, what really matters is how many young people end up unemployed or in low skill, insecure jobs.
Even worse, the official NEET numbers grossly understate the scale of the problem at a local level. As a result it has much less visibility and priority than it should. To be clear: many local authorities have a much bigger NEET problem in reality than their official data suggests. As new research for this report shows, we have lost track of tens of thousands of young people, including over 50,000 NEETs across England. As a result they are neither getting the help they need individually, nor the priority they need collectively. We need a proper count, at both local and national level.
In order to crack the problem, we also need to change fundamentally the way we think about young people who are NEET. The key is understanding who they are and the journey they make into unemployment. We are in thrall to a profoundly misleading idea that they are troubled, excluded and even dangerous. So we wrongly think the solution must lie in expensive specialist services.
In fact most young people who become NEET at the age of 18 look very average in most respects. Only a small number ‘drop out’ after leaving school. Most stay on, usually at further education (FE) colleges, for two more years of education. Most don’t come from low-income families or have special educational needs, and very few face more serious challenges such as being looked after or getting in trouble with the police at an early age.
Instead their defining characteristic is the lack of skills and qualifications – especially in English and mathematics – that are the passport to secure and decent employment. This only becomes apparent when they finally move into the labour market and can’t get a job. Of course those young people who face more significant challenges need special help. But the key to really reducing NEET numbers lies in ensuring that many more young people develop their core skills and qualifications.
Most importantly, this means dramatically improving literacy and numeracy through the education system. At the moment fully one third of young people in England reach the age of 19 without decent English and maths qualifications at the equivalent of GCSE C grades. We simply cannot be a productive country where prosperity is shared widely on this basis.
At the moment very few of those who reach the age of 16 without good literacy and numeracy skills gain them over the course of another two years of further education. In 2013 just one in six of the 19 year olds who had left school without decent English and maths GCSEs had gained these skills subsequently. Most were not even studying for such qualifications. Turning round this dismal record is now the most important mission for the further education sector. We must also do much more to improve careers guidance and the involvement of employers with schools, colleges and young people.
None of these building blocks for success requires major new resources. In particular, public funding is available for full-time education or training all the way up to 18. But success will require determined and energetic leadership, especially at the local level. Someone needs to bring together the schools, colleges, employers, advice services and third sector organisations around a clear mission.
The compelling candidates to lead this agenda are the local authorities. They have the legitimacy to prioritise the issue and convene the key partners. They will never control all the resources or organisations, but they can use public leadership and influence. They certainly need to rediscover their appetite for leading the local education and skills agenda, including with FE colleges and academy schools.
At the moment, accountability for NEETs and for youth employment is weak at both local and national levels. No one person or organisation is held sufficiently accountable for success and failure. No one gets fired or promoted because of youth unemployment numbers going up or down. As a result no one at the most senior level of national or local government wakes up every day worrying about this issue.
This needs to change. At the national level a single cabinet member should be accountable for the success or failure of reducing the number of 18 year old NEETs. Similarly in every local authority a single senior council officer and a single cabinet member should have clear accountability and leadership for this agenda. In the absence of this clarity, there will always be a lack of urgency in the face of other competing priorities.
We could dramatically reduce NEET numbers across England, transforming our economy, public finances and local communities in the process. The additional cost in terms of resources is negligible. We don’t even need to wait for a general election before we start. It’s time to bring skills and youth employment back onto the progressive political agenda.