Features: October 19th, 2012

The factors that can put a child at risk of being out of education, employment or training at age 16 are complex and varied. But uncovering them earlier is crucial to successfully improving outcomes for young people, says Dr Christopher Arnold, Senior Educational Psychologist at Sandwell Council.

Shania is 13 years old and she has just moved into a new home with her parents and two younger brothers. Her father is a lorry driver. Her mother used to work as a bookkeeper in a local office but she was made redundant three years ago and she has been unable to find regular work since then.

There have been some problems with Shania’s attendance and behaviour in school over the last few years and she doesn’t really know what she would like to do when she leaves formal education.

On first glance, Shania may not appear to be among the most vulnerable groups of children. But the early intervention work we have been doing in Sandwell to cut youth unemployment has revealed that, in our area at least, a child like Shania is at high risk of ending up as one of almost a million 16 to 18-year-olds in the UK today who are not in education, employment or training (NEET).

Being able to identify young people at risk of ending up NEET while they are still at school is crucial to improving their life chances and preventing them from becoming trapped on a downward spiral of hardship that continues to blight them into adulthood.

Looking at the figures

In my view, intervening earlier to reduce youth joblessness is like installing a fire alarm in a family’s home rather than relying on a fire engine to put out the fire once it has taken hold.

The social and economic benefits of preventing even one child from ending up NEET at aged 16 cannot be ignored.

Research has shown that young NEETs are:

? 22 times more likely to be parents under 18
? 60% more likely to use drugs
? 20 times more likely to commit crime
? 50% more likely to have poor health
? likely to have 10 years less life expectancy

And according to the New Economics Foundation, for every £1 invested in schemes designed to catch problems early and prevent their reoccurrence, the benefit to society has been worth between £7.60 and £9.20.

But to intervene earlier, authorities need to know what factors put children in their area at greater risk of becoming NEET in later life. They can then target services and support when and where they are needed to make a difference. This is something that we have been focussed on achieving in Sandwell.

The importance of data

We have been looking at how we can identify young people at risk of becoming NEET while they are still in school. Critical to the success of this work was the analysis of historical data the authority already holds on those young people in the area who have become NEET in the past.

By scrutinising our data we were able to identify some of the key indicators that could potentially reduce a child’s chances of being in education, employment or training at 16 years old.

We were also able to use the information available to us to grade these indicators in terms of their potential to increase a child’s vulnerability to future joblessness. The screening tool was designed so that the more NEET risk factors a child has, the higher their vulnerability score would be. This helped us to highlight those children who were most at risk.

Interestingly, the data showed us that being looked after, having one parent at home and even prior involvement with drugs are not the most significant factors in predicting a child’s future job prospects.

We were somewhat surprised to find that in Sandwell, a child is much more likely to end up out of work, education or training at aged 16 if their family has recently moved or has housing difficulties, there are issues with their attendance or behaviour in school or they have special educational needs.

This highlights how important it is for authorities to carry out data analysis locally as the issues that put a child at higher risk of becoming NEET later in life can differ considerably from one area to another.

Improving young people’s lives

As part of a wider NEET reduction strategy, we examined the differences between young people who were NEET and those who remained in education, employment or training. This enabled us to build a screening tool which was used initially in one large school and then in three. The evaluation showed that the method correctly identified over half of the children who were likely to become NEET three years before they were due to leave statutory education.

The next stage was to deliver the services and support to help change the pathway these children were on. We put different levels of intervention in place for each group, with children and families in the highest risk group receiving the most intensive support. But key to the success of the project was ensuring that the families of vulnerable children were on board and that they were in regular contact with a lead professional.

This was not always straight forward. If families could not be reached by telephone, other methods of contacting them were found. This included visiting their homes and making contact with them through the schools. In one case, a Personal Advisor used the annual review for a child with special educational needs to make contact with the family. Another child had been transferred to a Pupil Referral Unit and was tracked there.

The Personal Advisor then met with the young person and their parent and worked closely with them to ensure they got the help they needed to improve their life chances.

In the pilot schools we worked with, the additional services were able to reduce the NEET rate by 50% for those in the most vulnerable category.

If this figure could be replicated across the country, more of our young people will get the opportunities they deserve to make a positive contribution in society. And at the same time, we could help to reduce the burden of youth unemployment on the public purse.

Building on success

Following the success of the pilot to reduce NEET levels in Sandwell, we have begun rolling our early intervention strategy out to schools and academies across the region. In a project of this size, the tools available to us in our management information system – we use a solution supplied by Capita One – are essential in helping us to collect and analyse the wealth of data involved in an efficient and effective way. This is critical to ensuring we can build on what we have already accomplished for young people in the area.

The early intervention work being done in Sandwell emphasises that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to addressing the often complex issues preventing young people from entering into meaningful work or training once they leave school.

But the earlier we can start providing effective support for young people at risk of becoming NEET, the sooner we can put them on the road to a brighter future. And this will reap rewards for us all.

Dr Christopher Arnold is a Senior Educational Psychologist at Sandwell Council. For more information on Capita’s One management information solution, click here.