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Investing in youth opportunities

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Images of young people celebrating GCSE and A-level success have been all over our TV screens and newspapers in recent weeks.

These pictures of high-achieving teenagers are familiar to us each summer as we hear how the grades achieved reach record levels each time.

But what about the youngsters who do badly in their exams or don’t sit any? There are many of them and some are categorised as NEETs (Not in Employment, Education or Training).

Government figures released last month by the Department for Children, Schools and Families show that the number of NEETs has risen for the third quarter in a row.

  • 11.9% - Proportion of 16 to 18-year-olds not in employment, education or training (As of August 2009)
  • 1.3% - Increase in the proportion of 16 to 18-year-old NEETS over the last year
  • 7.6% - Government target for the proportion of 16 to 18-year-old NEETS by 2010
  • 115 - Number of top-tier councils to have adopted cutting proportion of NEETS in their local area agreements

Source: Department for Children, Schools and Families

NEETs now make up 11.% of 16 to 18-year-olds, up 1.3% on last year. The government’s target was for the figure to fall from 9.6% in 2004 to 7.6% by 2010.

Finding advice

There appears to be a problem with young people finding advice and counselling. Two recent reports from Youth Access, the membership organisation for youth support organisations, show that more than a million young people do not receive help with social welfare problems.

This trend must set alarm bells ringing in town halls across the country. Local authorities took over responsibility for Connexions services in April last year, and this worrying development has happened on their watch.

Tackling NEETs is an issue that local authorities have chosen above any other as the most popular national indicator in their Local Area Agreements, with 115 out of 150 councils selecting it.

It is a ridiculous way to run a careers service for this client group

Colin Falconer, Director of innovation, Foyer Federation

So are councils doing something wrong to allow this trend to develop? If they are, then the problem needs to be identified quickly as local government will assume control of the commissioning of 16-19 education from April next year. Councils will then have even more influence over the fate of many young people as they enter adulthood.

Certainly the economic recession has had a huge effect, particularly on apprenticeships. Companies are cutting back on the opportunities they offer young people andeven the number of jobs they can give to well-qualified youngsters.

Best placed

A report from the Local Government Association published in July suggests local authorities are best placed to work with partners to identify the needs of disengagedyoung people and then address those needs through Connexions.

It says: “While in a few areas there have been initial teething problems regarding the transfer, this has generally supported a better integrated approach.”

But Colin Falconer, director of innovation at the Foyer Federation, describes the current situation as patchy, with some councils developing more integrated services than others. He also points to a flaw in the general approach, with most areas establishing ‘age-based’ provision, which can hinder efforts to reduce the number of NEETs.

“It is age defined in terms of who has access, and some people are too old. It is a ridiculous way to run a careers service for this client group,” he says.

Chris Wright, director of operations with charity Catch 22, believes local government’s priorities need to change.

“There should be a rallying call to all local authorities to take this issue seriously,” he says.

Connexions has not always been effective in ensuring all service providers work well together, he says, and the challenge for councils now is to ensure that a number of these organisations no longer “operate under the radar”.

Voluntary organisations

Voluntary organisations are major players in service provision for NEETs, and through their commissioning role local authorities can have a major influence on how third sector services are delivered.

This is a crucial point according to Leah Selinger, head of fundraising at Fairbridge, who says: “It is imperative that local authorities use their greater responsibility forcommissioning to work closely with the organisations that can provide the specialist support many of our most vulnerable young people require.”

Fairbridge specialises in helping young people aged 13-25 in inner city areas, and Ms Selinger says a large number are in the “sustained” category, which means they have had a very difficult time at school, and face a number of barriers to finding education, training or job opportunities. This group in particular requires intensive personalised support, and many voluntary sector organisations provide this.

An LGA spokesperson says local authorities can coordinate efforts at a local level and prevent a piecemeal approach. She says they can respond effectively to local circumstances and tailor services accordingly.

She explains that there is an artificial barrier at 18, and that we need to be looking at NEETs of all ages as one group. But she also agrees that it is imperative that local authorities work very closely with the voluntary sector and build an effective relationship.

Faring so far

How do Connexions leaders think local authorities are faring as their new masters?

Ayub Khan, who is a director of membership organisation the National Connexions Network (NCN), says it was difficult for councils at first because they were developing integrated youth services at the same time as they took on Connexions.

Mr Khan, who is also director of the South London sub-regional Connexions unit, says there are two areas where authorities need to do more. He says they need to do more to promote apprenticeships, and they need to move towards a ‘roll on roll off’ entry system to education, whereby youngsters can join at different times of the year and not just in September.

Fellow NCN director Janice Bray agrees councils must not forget they are employers themselves and can offer youngsters opportunities, although she says such an
approach is constrained.

Ms Bray believes October’s introduction of the Future Jobs Fund for 18 to 24-year-olds represents a big opportunity for councils to make some real inroads into reducing the number of NEETs.

The fund is aimed at people who have been out of work for a year or more, and it provides a subsidy for six months as an incentive for employers to offer training

This may help to prevent young people experiencing the problem of their apprenticeships being stopped a number of months in, says Ms Bray, who is executive director of Connexions in County Durham.

Innovation is an important element of the local authority response to the problem of how to help NEETs, and some are taking up the option of new ‘foundations’, which are designed to cater for young people under threat of being excluded from school.

Ten foundations, which are being set up by charity UK Youth with funding from the Department for Children, Schools and Families, offer a one-to-four ratio of pupils to ‘learning mentors’. A pilot in Scunthorpe that has been running for four years has helped 80 pupils each year by offering an alternative to exclusion.

Under the Education and Skills Act 2008, all youngsters will have to stay in some form of education or training until they are 17 from 2013, and then from 2015 the ruling will be extended to 18-year-olds. This will surely help to reduce the number of NEETs, but there is no simple answer to some complex issues they face.

Local authorities will continue to be on the front line as they run Connexions services, and also take on the huge task of leading the direction of post-16 education. The test for them will be whether we see more young people from challenging backgrounds achieving success in exams.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Connexions on its own cannot reduce the numbers of young people who are NEET.This requires a whole system approch what Connexions can and does do is advocate on behalf of young people and enable them to influnce the future commissioing of services All young people are learning something our role are service planners is to listne to young peoples views and ideas and to ensure they contribute to the solutions rather than see them as the problem

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