NEETS and the art of spotting disengagement

By Elanor Stevens

Friday 18 October 2013

The latest report of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission points out that nearly two-thirds of children who fail to achieve good GCSEs in English and maths are not from deprived backgrounds.

This highlights that there are many reasons why young people may disengage from learning and not realise their full academic potential, in addition to the ‘obvious’ risk factors related to family poverty or social disadvantage. NFER research has demonstrated that there are large numbers of young people who are not in education, employment and training (NEET) – approximately two-thirds of the NEET group – who do not face multiple and complex barriers to learning. Those that do face such barriers are more likely to be ‘sustained’ NEETs, whereas those who do not may disengage temporarily in between periods of work, education or training.

Reasons to be cheerless?

How might young people in this ‘inbetween’ group be identified and supported? NFER’s checklist of indicators draws on both the outward signs of disengagement and the reasons why a young person may have lost interest in learning. It includes factors which local authorities typically use in their ‘risk of NEET’ indicators – primarily readily accessible, measurable data on factors which correlate with risk of NEET at a local or national level – and importantly, more personal, subtle factors which may be recognised by teachers and other practitioners who work with young people on a daily basis. For instance, a young person might struggle to see the relevance of their studies to their future life, feel unhappy with the subject choices they have made, or be dealing with issues outside of school which affect how they behave in school.

The details of an individual’s circumstances, potential, attitudes and motivation summarised through using the checklist and log may be useful when form teachers, careers advisers or inclusion staff and other agencies are discussing an appropriate support strategy. Working through our discussion aid with young people will help staff to better understand why they have lost interest in learning; the first step in supporting them to re-engage.

Tackling the inbetweeners

So what sort of approaches help so-called ‘inbetweeners’ to re-engage with learning and achieve their full potential? In a recent NFER policy paper on careers guidance, we emphasised the special importance for these young people of good, impartial careers education and guidance; and of having the opportunity to develop their (vocational) aptitudes in an appropriately tailored learning environment, doing subjects which interest them and which help make links with core subject study such as in English and maths.

NFER is conducting a project to share learning from a number of schools with effective approaches to re-engage these young people. Approaches include academic mentoring, project-based learning, enterprise activities, and programmes to build confidence and resilience. As part of this work we are consulting with the schools on the role of our list of ‘risk indicators’ in identifying the young people who are selected for particular support initiatives.

Our aim is to provide schools with guidance in ‘matching’ suitable approaches to young people with particular characteristics and needs. The free interactive checklist and discussion aid we’ve published today, and future evidence from our evaluation of schools’ targeted support initiatives, will be useful tools in the armoury for practitioners aiming to raise the aspirations and achievement of those young people who seem poised to slip quietly through the cracks.