Jenny North says structural change is needed to tackle the problem of youth unemployment.
The dawning of a new year is always a time for hope and resolutions. This was never more true than in 2000 when we welcomed in the new Millennium. There was great media attention at the time on the first babies to be born that year, and comment on what they might expect from their lives in the 21st century.
But, as the report we have just published reveals, the Millennium kids were born at a moment when structural problems with the UK’s youth labour market were beginning to show. Records that began in 2000 of the number of young people Neet (not in employment, education, or training) climbed throughout the decade, despite the booming economy. The recession drove the numbers still higher, and despite a recent marginal fall, it is estimated there are still 1.07m people aged 16-24 who are Neet. The fact that young people are failing to make the transition from school to work or into further education is not a side effect of the crash of 2008, it long pre-dates it, and there is good reason to believe it will outlive the recovery.
The 604,441 children of the Millennium are turning 14 this year. Our research shows that one in five of them is at risk of becoming Neet between the ages of 16 and 24 and that even a short period Neet will have a long-term impact on their earnings. A person who spends just six months Neet in their youth will by their forties lose up to £50,000 in earnings compared with non-graduate peers and up to £225,000 compared with graduate peers who have never been Neet.
The causes of Neet status are not simple, but attainment at GCSE is the best predictor, and this attainment is best predicted by parental income. Seven out of ten pupils on free school meals will not achieve five good GCSEs. Raising educational attainment is crucial but it needs to be accompanied by structural changes and incentives that will focus policymakers and school leaders on ensuring young people leave schools with the qualifications, skills and opportunities they need to succeed in today’s labour market.
That’s why our recommendations are structural – we’re not tinkering or telling teachers what to do differently in the classroom. We’re calling for a Secretary of State for School-To-Work Transitions – someone who will stop the 68 per cent of young people who are not going to university from falling between the cracks of Whitehall departments, and who can build and deliver a vision for a youth labour market where the proportion of young people starting work each year is growing, not shrinking.
We’re calling for the pupil premium to be paid, in part, by results. The evidence is plentiful that this money is not being used to drive outcomes for pupils on free school meals. As it stands, schools are hardly incentivised to do so. Schools should be paid a portion of their money on a per-pupil basis, dependent on whether that pupil is in education, employment or training 18 months after they leave school. That could significantly decrease the likelihood of a young person spending that damaging period Neet.
Finally, we’re calling for Ofsted to build school-to-work transitions into its inspection framework. The roots of Neet status are, in part, within what happens at school – to change this,schools need to be accountable for the work-readiness of their pupils. We need Ofsted to look closely at what measures schools use to ensure that they are helping young people to avoid becoming Neet. By building this into the assessment framework, we can bind employability into a school’s offer.
It’s not too late for our Millennium kids. The changes we are calling for would have an increasingly positive effect over time, but importantly they would make a difference right away. They would focus minds in Whitehall and in schools on the fact that when it comes to Neets, prevention is better than cure. Placing the transition from school-to-work at the heart of the outcomes we value for our children is our best chance to make Neets history, and we need to do it now.