Prevention better than cure: let’s stop young people from becoming NEET in the first place
Last week Ed Miliband told us what a Labour government would do to try to stop unemployed young people from getting stuck in a cycle of worklessness and benefit dependency. So I was really pleased to have the opportunity respond to Labour’s shadow education spokesperson, Tristram Hunt MP, as he set out his party’s plans to stop young people from ending up in that situation in the first place. At an event we co-hosted with The Fabian Society, he described Labour’s commitment to attainment for all, including the most disadvantaged, and the importance of outstanding schools and excellent teachers in achieving this. Tristam also spoke on careers education, the importance of linking FE qualifications to local labour market needs and school accountability.
This is an issue that is close to our hearts at Impetus-PEF. Both our investment work and our policy campaigns focus on the need to solve the problem of more than a fifth of young people every year in the UK who fail to make the transition from school to work, which carries long-term consequences for their economic, physical and mental wellbeing. These young people are far more likely to come from low-income backgrounds. I’m pleased to hear Tristram Hunt speak so positively about the specific extra support that the most disadvantaged may need in order to achieve academically, and be ready for work. Much of this support comes from outstanding charities – like those we support.
And of course it’s agreed that outstanding teachers and school leaders are vital ingredients in closing the attainment gap between rich and poor – the evidence on that is clear. But the evidence is also clear that it’s not enough. Even if every school in the country was rated “outstanding” by Ofsted, the attainment gap would only narrow by a fifth, and it’s even less clear that this would make significant difference to NEET (not in education, employment and training) numbers.
The problems of nearly a million young people between 16-24, who have been unable to make the move from school to work and who spend time NEET, are structural – and we at Impetus-PEF are convinced of the need for structural, systemic change to solve them. People are aware now that this isn’t a “recession problem” which will dwindle with a return to growth, but one which stalked us throughout the boom years, and which will continue to do so without politicians taking action.
We know what this action should look like. We’re calling for:
1) A time-limited Secretary of State for School-to-Work Transitions, perhaps only for one term. Who is currently responsible for building – and realising – a vision for Britain’s youth labour market that would draw together policy and resources across Whitehall? The answer is no one person or agency; responsibility is shared among three departments (education, work and pensions, and business) which means no one individual bears responsibility, or has the power, to actually end the country’s NEET problem. This Secretary of State will need to make changes in schools and further education, and work with employers to be truly effective – and we’re working on a blueprint for this role and its priorities.
2) Making the money we spend really work. The Pupil Premium is a great idea, but there’s ample evidence that it’s not being directed towards evidence-based programmes, not even always being spent on the low-income pupils it was created for, and schools are certainly not being held accountable for the attainment outcomes they do or don’t achieve with the money.
This isn’t acceptable. We’d like to see the next government make the Pupil Premium for 14-16 year olds payable in part by results. This means that schools would only receive a portion of their Pupil Premium funding if they can show they have secured improved outcomes for those pupils at whom the Premium is aimed. This would develop clear incentives and accountability at the school-level for helping disadvantaged young people get the qualifications that we know significantly reduce their chances of becoming NEET.
3) Make schools accountable for what matters. Just as someone needs to be accountable for school-to-work transitions in Whitehall, so schools need to share accountability for where their pupils end up. Currently, the very narrow accountability schools have for exam results means they end up neglecting vocational qualifications, careers advice and contact with employers. We would charge Ofsted with inspecting schools’ efforts to improve school-to-work transitions so that schools are transparently and routinely held to account for their efforts to produce school-leavers who are ready for work, and for their ability to understand in real-time the attainment and engagement of their pupils.
We know Ofsted are looking at ways to inspect schools as to where their leavers end up and we welcome this step. We hope all parties will continue to press on this to ensure it is implemented effectively.
I am encouraged that the major parties are continuing to take this problem, and the solution, seriously as they write their manifestos over the next few months. If I could leave them with one message, it is this: the cure – getting the unemployed into work – is crucial, but wouldn’t prevention – stopping young people from becoming NEET by ensuring they’re ready and able to make the transition from school to work – be so much better? Not just economically, but also in terms of young people’s wellbeing, mental health, and belief in themselves. I believe the three recommendations I outlined in response to Tristram Hunt today would go a long way towards making prevention a reality.