Overall NEET rates continue to fall but should we be concerned about the rise in 16 to 18 year olds who are NET as well as NEET?

By Tami McCrone

Friday 25 August 2017

Amidst the excitement of GCSE results and commentary on the new grading system for English and maths yesterday, you may be forgiven for missing the fact that the latest quarterly statistical first release (SFR) from the Department for Education on young people not in education, employment or training (NEET) was also published.

The SFR confirmed the downward trend in the proportion of young people who are NEET over recent years, first reported in the annual ‘Participation in Education, Training and Employment’ SFR back in June. This latest NEET quarterly statistics brief, which provides more timely but less accurate estimates of young people NEET, showed the overall 16-24 year old NEET rate has decreased from 12.0 per cent a year ago to 11.4 per cent (not a statistically significant change) now.

The overall employment situation is also good at the moment. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) August 2017 release indicates that the unemployment rate for 16-64 year olds is 4.5 per cent. These figures are the lowest unemployment figures since 1975, indicating a buoyant labour market with high levels of employment.

It is also good news that UK youth unemployment is low compared to most of our European neighbours. In Quarter 4 2016, a House of Commons briefing paper reported that the UK has a youth unemployment rate, according to Eurostat, of 12.1 per cent. This was the seventh lowest rate among European economies and compares favourably to the European Union average of 18.1 per cent. In contrast, France was reported to have a youth unemployment rate of 25.0 per cent. Germany had the lowest youth unemployment rate at 6.0 per cent.

The latest ONS August 2017 release also indicates that the unemployment rate for 18-24 year olds is 10.8 per cent compared to 3.4 per cent for those aged 25 to 49 years old. Although having one in ten of our young people aged 18-24 unemployed is clearly too high, it is lower than in recent years, so is an encouraging sign.

But it’s not all good news…

In spite of Raising the Participation Age (RPA), worrying dropout rates from employment, education and training at 17 and 18 years old have persisted. For example, in Quarter 2 2017 4.4 per cent of 16 year olds were NEET, but this figure rose to 8.3 per cent at age 17 years old and 12.2 per cent at 18 years old.

The overall percentage of 16 to 18 year old young people NEET in Quarter 2 2017 is 8.4 per cent, the highest since 2013 (9.1 per cent). In Quarter 2 2016 8 per cent were NEET, in 2015 7.5 per cent were NEET and in 2014 8.1 per cent were NEET.

Although compared to five years ago, we currently have fewer young people NEET, in recent years this progress appears to have stalled. Why is this? Are young people making poor choices at 16 years old or are they not being supported with the choices they have made? Or, having changed their minds and dropped out, do we not have sufficient safety nets in place to catch young people and re-engage them back into employment, education or training?

Of more concern, according to the latest NEET quarterly statistics brief is the rate of 16 – 18 year olds Not in Education and Training (NET) which has increased between April and June 2016 and 2017 by 1.8 per cent points to 18.4 per cent. (‘Education and Training’ includes apprenticeships). What this means is that, despite RPA, almost one in five of our young people aged 16 to 18 are not in any form of education and training, so they are not currently developing their skills and knowledge.

It is interesting to break this down by age. Between April to June 2016 and 2017, the proportion of 16 year olds NET remained stable at 5.4 per cent; decreased for 17 year olds by 0.4 per cent points to 14 per cent and increased for 18 year olds by 5.2 per cent points to 35 per cent. The change in the proportion NET for 18 year olds was statistically significant. It may be that the buoyant employment market provides them with an attractive alternative to education and training at present.

In the interests of social mobility, and the long-term effect on our economy and productivity, we should find out more about these young people. For example, what types of schools did they attend? What careers education and guidance and exposure to the world of work have they experienced? How many GCSEs have they achieved? Would the NET figure be lower if more apprenticeships were available for 16-19 year olds and they were being recruited for apprenticeships? To what extent, if at all, are young people aware of apprenticeships?

How can we increase 16-18 year olds engagement in education and training?

The Productivity Plan (2015), Skills Plan (2016) and the Industrial Strategy (2017) set out the components of a new system for post-16 education. This includes creating more apprenticeships, reforming technical education based on 15 routes, increasing work placements and young people’s exposure to the workplace, while providing financial support for training.

Understanding and navigating the available options will be a challenge when the new T Levels are a reality from 2020. However, we must hope that this new system, the proposed transition year, the long-awaited revised careers strategy and the outcomes of activity and support interventions (such as those underway in the Opportunity Areas) will help to further reduce the number of NEETs. In particular, the new system should aim to ensure a corresponding fall in the NET rate and deliver a steady increase in young people’s engagement in education and training.