Youth unemployment has become a major issue as the number of those not in education, training or employment (NEETS) continues to grow. Glen Williams explains the success of an approach which focuses on prevention rather than cure. He explains how by predicting those who may become NEETS and providing crucial support in earlier years their futures can be changed.
Local authorities are only too well aware of their need to play a significant role in reducing the number of young people not in education, training or employment. After all, the UK is facing record high NEET figures. When you take into consideration that budget and resource are stretched tighter than ever, it’s clear just how huge the challenge is to find workable solutions.
At a national level, the government has recently responded with a new ‘Youth Contract’ scheme, involving almost £1bn being used to provide subsidised work and training placements across the country. Once a young person becomes disengaged, having the right policies in place to support their re-entry into employment and education is of course vitally important.
However, at a local level, a growing number of local authorities are taking the ‘prevention is better (and more cost efficient) than cure’ route. By nipping any concerns in the bud during a child’s formative years in compulsory education, these LAs ultimately hope to pre-empt future issues and reduce the number of their young people that will eventually need additional support.
Yet it’s no easy task. LAs need to consider which measures are economically worthwhile, how best to prioritise resource and how impact can be monitored and benchmarked to ensure sufficient progress is being made. What an increasing number are finding is that measuring the ‘hard to measure’ – the attitudes held by children at school that could be restricting their ability to achieve – demonstrably fulfils a great many of these objectives.
The 4 As
Attendance, achievement, attitude and aspiration are the holy grail when it comes to children’s attainment at school and must therefore form a crucial element of the strategy to reduce NEETs. Attitudes and aspirations can be predictors of what is to come, so support can be given proactively, rather than waiting for attendance or achievement to decline.
Attitudinal surveys can provide valuable information across each of these ‘4 As’, including predicting up to twelve months in advance those who are likely to truant, by asking a series of short psychometric questions specifically correlated with educational attainment.
These include factors such as pupils’ general work ethic, perceived learning capability, attitude to attendance and how connected they feel to the school – all important areas in keeping a young person engaged in their education. ‘Feelings about school’ is a measure frequently used to evaluate anti-bullying programmes but also examines how connected a child feels to their learning environment. Independent research has shown that feeling this sense of ‘connectedness’ can decisively reduce the risk of later youth criminality, drug-taking and other forms of anti-social behaviour.
Rhondda Cynon Taf CBC (RCT) is one of around 100 boroughs in the UK using attitudinal surveys to complement more traditional literacy and numeracy assessment data. An area of significant socio-economic disadvantage, RCT is currently using attitudinal surveys across 19 secondary schools as part of a three year project called ‘Building the Future Together’. Partly financed by the European Social Fund through the Welsh Government, it aims to improve the life chances and career opportunities for the thousands of young people that live in the area.
“With around 24,000 young people to screen, measuring attitudes gives us the information we need to stimulate more positive attitudes to education across the local authority and to identify any areas that require appropriate interventions,” says Martyn Silezin, schools data officer at RCT.
“Once we surveyed the children, the biggest surprise was that the most disaffected and disruptive pupils have a strong belief in their own ability to learn but lack of belief in the system to help them. Knowing this immediately focuses our efforts in the right direction.”
Knowing where the key issues lie, when it comes to factors that directly contribute to educational success or failure, means local authorities can pinpoint where to prioritise their efforts. This is a cost effective way of picking up children who are attitudinally going off the boil before the worst happens and reduces the incidence of fragile or previously ‘invisible’ learners – who may not be picked up by other methods.
Typically, results from attitudinal surveys are quick to generate and can be collated to look at the needs of individual pupils, or explore cohort patterns like year group, gender and ethnicity. They can also be looked at in terms of strategic priorities of individual schools or scaled up to look at entire LA perspectives. Data can also be used longitudinally to track progress, or interrogated to reveal sometimes unexpected trends. For example, many people are surprised to learn that nationally one of the most vulnerable groups of children, in terms of emotions and attitudes, are white urban boys.
Conversely, the results may confirm something long suspected such as a dip in Year 7 – a notoriously risky time-period for some learners, who find the transition from primary school to secondary school difficult. Evidencing these hypotheses and then gaining an insight into the reasons why the problem persists – for example, feelings of alienation at the new ‘big’ school – are the first steps to successful intervention.
This was the situation at St Helen’s Council in Merseyside, a small local authority in an area of severe deprivation, high unemployment and high teenage pregnancy. Staff had been aware that some children were starting secondary school with a range of behavioural problems and poor social skills. Using attitudinal surveys to focus on Years 5 and 6, they immediately saw a pattern of low scores in some pupils’ self-regard, confidence in learning and attitudes to attendance, particularly for girls. This provided clear evidence that negative feelings were starting early.
Having pinpointed the key areas, St Helens was able to put in place a comprehensive intervention programme, particularly focusing on activities for girls but also dealing with all children’s basic needs for learning. When they re-evaluated several months later, they were pleased to find many of the factors had significantly improved.
Fully engaging children in education, in order to reduce the personal, social and economic costs of becoming NEET, demands joined up multi-agency working. A team might include educational psychologists, school improvement officers, behavioural specialists, social workers and other support staff, who, as individuals, may only work together rarely as a specific group. The reality is that building an effective team can take time and therefore money – both of which are often in short supply.
Attitudinal survey data, coming from the children themselves, can speed up or even bypass many of the issues associated with the typical stages of team-building. Speaking with a common pupil-centred voice allows everyone to focus immediately on the needs of the children and move more quickly to action. Re-assessing regularly evidences progress over time and the impact of intervention, which in turn allows LAs to reflect on, and refine, their service delivery models.
When the devastating consequences of being out of work or education are so well- documented, and the self-perpetuating cycle of deprivation, which can be an element of NEETs is so resistant to change, it’s clear that preventative assessment can be imperative to success.
Multi-dimensional attitudinal information offers an opportunity to extend and enrich local authorities’ understanding of issues and improves their ability to build a rich picture of where interventions might be most beneficial. This knowledge improves resource allocation and provision mapping, and – essential in these times of austerity – aids more targeted prioritisation of spending.
After all, it will be the local authorities that manage to most efficiently identify, interpret and intervene to support their most vulnerable young people that will make the greatest progress in improving their life chances.
Dr Glen Williams is a chartered psychologist at W3 Insights, part of GL Assessment, and has developed the Pupil Attitudes to Self and School (PASS) attitudinal survey