Are policies for NEETs still working for young people?

Are policies for NEETs still working for young people?

Aniela Wenham (University of York)

The most recent figures show that there are currently 13.1% of 16-24 year olds defined as NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training). When focusing upon the 19-24 age group this rate increases to 15.9%. While policy makers may take comfort in this representing a further decline from previous figures (0.6 and 1.0 percentage points), the proportion of young people who are NEET in the UK is still above the OECD average.

Tackling NEET was the focus of much policy on young people during the late 1990’s. During the New Labour era we witnessed the arrival of youth policy via the development of the Social Exclusion Unit that introduced a range of initiatives to tackle NEET, including the Connexions Service, and later, the introduction of the EMA (Educational Maintenance Allowance) However, when interpreting this context there are a number of critiques relating to the definition, measurement and policy approaches towards young people defined as NEET that need further consideration.

Youth scholars draw upon a range of social indicators to illustrate the impact of difference and how social institutions structure outcomes in later life. There is a greater likelihood that some groups of young people will be out of education, employment and training. For instance, you are much more likely to be NEET if you come from a lower socio-economic background, are ‘looked after’, have a disability, have SEN’s, or are a young carer. Such statistics demonstrate how structural factors such as social class continue to shape young peoples life chances, albeit it, in increasingly complex ways.

Social research can also illustrate broad social trends, highlighting how social inequalities persist across the lifecourse. Understanding these trends demonstrates the patterning of social inequalities. Within the contemporary climate of austerity such data can provide a glimpse into whether such social inequalities are deepening.

However, NEET, as a social indicator, is extremely problematic if disentangled from its political, social and economic climate. Theoretical frameworks help us understand how young people’s lives change and adapt over time, which in turn, impact and influence our understanding of concepts such as NEET. The social policy needs of young people depend upon a more thorough and meaningful (critical) engagement with data and theory (and the linkage between the two) that reflects the contemporary context for young people. In this post I focus upon two key areas, the need for a longitudinal approach and greater critical engagement with the type of work young people engage with, that need careful consideration when unpicking the concept of NEET and considering future policy initiatives.

Lives are not static
Research exploring young people’s movement through fields such as education, employment and training illustrates the instability and complexity associated with such transitions. Our understanding of these journeys is pivotal in appreciating social mobility, but also the persistence (the making and –re-making) of social inequalities that relate to differences amongst young people such as social class, ethnicity and gender.

The need for a longitudinal approach is further reinforced by both McDonald (2011) and Coles (2010), who demonstrate how young people defined as NEET are the most likely to experience insecure and precarious transitions that involve churning between various states. Once again, this highlights the importance for policy makers and politicians to link theory (our understanding of the social world) to empirical evidence (the measurement of NEET) in a way that represents this movement and accurately captures the ebbs and flows of young peoples lives. Longitudinal studies, both quantitative and qualitative, have transformed the way in which we understand the social world. Critical engagement with the concept NEET needs to adopt a long view, ever more important when set against the backdrop of extended transitions to adulthood, and thus, the increasing recognition placed upon following young peoples transitions into their late twenties, and indeed further beyond. Qualitative Longitudinal Research (QLR) is particularly adept at highlighting the changing lives of young people, providing rich and detailed description and analysis of the social world. Statistics on NEET that are merely read as a snapshot view only serve to reinforce a simplistic view of young peoples transitions and how these have changed over time. For policy makers in particular, they risk bypassing the routes into, and out of, marginalisation and poverty.

Youth biographies (exploring the past, present and future)
Understanding young peoples’ movement into, and out of, categories such as NEET also requires adopting a broader perspective on what precedes such a ‘poor’ welfare outcome. This involves asking, what are the biographical consequences of marginality and inequality throughout the lifecourse?

Rich biographical data, such as that of Webster et al. (2004), underscores the importance of disadvantage in pre-16/18 education. Such research can powerfully illustrate the many ways in which our education system continues to fail (some) young people. One of the most striking features of the Coalition era was the drastic reform of the education sector. When placed within the context of research on educational disadvantage and disaffection, such reform is likely to further embed educational inequalities rather than alleviate them. As Diane Reay argues: “We will never achieve a socially just educational system in a society where competitive individualism is rife, and the working classes are seen as deficient, written off as those who are failing to make themselves middle class.”

But how exactly do we define success and failure within the context of young peoples’ lives? Unfortunately, what we don’t engage with nearly enough is the restricted notions of success and failure that help form understandings of welfare outcomes. Ideas of ‘success’ and ‘failure’ are increasingly couched in individualistic terms with the impact of perceived ‘failure’ being read as personal pathology rather than as a result of restricted educational and employment opportunities. Not only did the Coalition government fail to tackle NEET, but their educational reforms opened up the potential for future problems to emerge for the most marginalised young people in society. Understanding how the past informs the present, but also how the future choices of young people are restrained as a consequence of limited opportunities is integral to our understanding of contemporary youth transitions.

The low-pay – no pay cycle
Policy approaches to NEET are extremely problematic if they fail to take into account the type of work young people engage with. Underemployment and in-work poverty are often absent from policy discussions on NEET despite increasing recognition being placed upon these concepts within wider social policy debates. Shildrick et al’s (2010) research provides a detailed illustration of how recurrent poverty links to the low pay, no pay cycle. Again, this this study involved following individuals over time, drawing attention to the precariousness of youth transitions in the context of multiple deprivation. The study found that “the churning labour-market careers typical of young adults in our earlier studies continued for them as they reached their thirties” (p.39). Work that is poorly paid often offers limited progression for young people.

Recent research shows that people in low pay are more likely to experience insecure work and that this often involves churning between employment and unemployment. It is also estimated that within the UK there are 1.4 million people working part time when they would prefer to work full time. As Ruddy argues, limited attention is placed upon understanding in-work poverty in relation to young people in particular. Embedding NEET within a youth poverty framework offers a valuable opportunity to re-frame wider policy debates on young peoples’ experiences of education and employment within a social justice framework.

What does the future hold for NEETs?
When reflecting upon the Coalition era (2010-2015) it is striking how youth policy, including that focused on NEET, transformed rapidly. This is especially dramatic when compared to the New Labour era that attempted to build the structures and mechanisms to address the complex issues young people faced via a more holistic approach to service delivery (a joined-up approach to joined-up problems). However, one of the most alarming features from 2010 onwards is how support and provision for young people disintegrated in such a short space of time. Throughout the 5 years of the Coalition government we witnessed the decimation of youth services and provision and what some had though was previously the beginnings of a coherent and integrated youth policy. As it stands, young people have been left with limited opportunities and little support to forge and navigate increasingly complex, and for some, increasingly marginal transitions to adulthood.

During this period (2010-2015) we witnessed the abolition of the EMA, severe cut backs to careers advice and guidance, and what has now become to be a rather discredited Youth Contract that, despite being outlined as the Coalition’s key intervention for the ‘hardest to reach’, was recently deemed a short-term response to the economic downturn. As we fast approach the general election there is little indication that any political party aspires to re –build or re-establish an integrated youth policy that responds to the complexity of young people’s lives. A mismatch of ill-fitting policies, detached from the reality of young peoples lives, are likely to emerge. Perhaps, this is why politicians and policy makers are avoiding addressing the needs of young people, and instead prefer to redefine them in their own terms, often as scroungers, undeserving and workshy.


Aniela Wenham is Lecturer in the School of Social Policy and Social Work of the University of York. She has a longstanding interest in the issues children and young people face and has worked as youth worker. She is also an associate editor of Youth and Policy.