Giving you the confidence to choose the right qualification

The Excluded Minority

In November 2011 the Department for Education (DfE) announced that almost 1.16 million 16-24 year olds in England were classified as ‘NEET’ (Source; Guardian Online, November 24th 2011). The term is used as shorthand to describe young people who are not in education, employment or training. This represented approximately 21% of the population in that age group and an increase of 137,000 compared to the same period the previous year.

The 2010 Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) PISA world education ranking report also made for depressing reading. A study of 65 countries revealed the UK was ranked 25th in terms of the reading ability of 15 year olds and 28th in the maths ability of that age group. The UK has fallen down the rankings since 2006. Finally a Confederation of British Industry (CBI) survey in 2010 highlighted that 18% of employers had to conduct additional training for new workers in literacy and numeracy.

The UK has fallen a number of rankings since 2006

This statistics suggest that the UK is failing to give a large proportion of its young people the basic skills needed to participate in adult life. Large numbers of us enter adulthood without the numeracy skills to effectively manage a budget, understand the significance of interest rates and calculate a shopping list.

A more complex picture

Beneath these depressing headlines a more complex picture emerges. The OECD PISA rankings arguably highlight how difficult it is to disentangle social, cultural and educational factors in determining high performance in young people. Very different educational models occupy the top positions in the latest rankings.

Governments in the UK have made frequent attempts over the last decade to address the needs of those marginalised by mainstream education. There have been significant improvements in the number of learners with 'functional' levels of literacy and numeracy. Functional literacy and numeracy is defined as the level required to manage everyday tasks and overcome common problems. The education system has paradoxically been criticised for its hyperactivity in the number of 14-19 qualifications introduced into school system to address these problems. The 14-19 Diploma, for example, while heavily criticised, was an attempt to meet the needs of those learners who might struggle in GCSEs and A levels. It aimed to develop the literacy, numeracy and wider employability skills in a practical setting of genuine interest to that young person.

The limits of formal education

There are real limits to the impact education can have on young people. Recent research conducted by Washington University suggests that 60% of a child's performance in school is the result of non-school factors (Source; The Economist, September 17th 2011). It is clear that however inspirational a teacher, or well managed a school, the influence of family has a huge bearing on the life chances of a young person.

The problems afflicting such a large number of our youth have no quick fixes. It is the stuff of tabloid headlines to simplistically blame the ‘NEET’ phenomenon on the failings of our current education system. Furthermore it is not a peculiarly British disease; youth unemployment is between 25% and 30% in Italy and over 30% in Spain, Slovakia and Estonia (Source; The European Foundation for the Improvement of living and working conditions, 20th December 2011). The recession that has devastated much of the developed world has a major role to play in explaining the dramatic rise in NEETs over the last half decade.

While there are no quick solutions, tough questions do remain. Why is it that the levels of NEETs are so low in Germany for exampwle? Perhaps the greatest challenge for the UK government is to make inroads in to a culture of benefits and non-achievement that spans generations in many of our poorest communities. Education can only ever go partway to alleviating such deep rooted social problems.