As the Executive comes under pressure to do more for those at the bottom of the educational heap, an award-winning motivational programme appears to be showing encouraging results.
Activate, run by Careers Scotland, has been piloted in 75 schools in central Scotland, targeting more than 1,400 pupils in the final three months of school who were thought to face most difficulty in finding a job or continuing education. They are most likely to be not in education, employment or training (NEET).
An independent study by Smart Associates has revealed that 89 per cent of the young participants had stayed at school or moved into work, training or education, compared to the projected 40 per cent.
Of the leavers, 56.3 per cent on the pound;864,000 programme went on to a job, college or training, with 32.7 per cent returning to school.
Only 7.5 per cent of those taking part ended up in the NEET group.
Nationally, there are 35,000 in this group, comprising 16 per cent of 16 to 19-year-olds. The study for Careers Scotland suggests this is the largest proportion in the OECD, although that has been disputed by Nicol Stephen, the Lifelong Learning Minister.
The Scottish Executive is about to unveil its strategy for reducing the number of NEET youngsters and is expected to focus on the early intervention strategy in schools that Activate has been promoting.
One of the most significant findings in the evaluation is that, three months after staying on at school or moving on, more than 88 per cent of the Activate participants were still in that positive position.
The report, however, queries how sustainable this progress is, since the data is not reliable enough. Critically, it states, there is no information on those school returners who do eventually leave school. This is "a major weakness which significantly detracts from our ability to make any claims about Activate's longer-term impact on NEET status".
The report acknowledges that recent industrial action at Careers Scotland has affected the supply of data, but notes that Activate is intended to provide support to participants for a year after they leave school. "If this is happening properly, data on their progress must surely be available," it adds.
Activate is delivered in schools by Careers Scotland advisers, through a series of motivational group work sessions that concentrate on employability skills and enterprise activities. The pupils are in S4 and S5, and were identified as those who might struggle beyond school because of low self-esteem, lack of confidence or poor communication skills.
The programme works with two groups in each academic year, Christmas leavers and those leaving at the end of summer term. The activities are designed to increase their motivation, confidence and job-seeking skills.
Julie-Anne Jamieson, head of employability at Careers Scotland, said: "The programme is showing encouraging signs in the prevention and reduction of young people becoming part of the NEET group. For a wide variety of reasons, many participants find it difficult to find a job and it is sometimes even more of a challenge for them to hold down a position."
Activate recently received national recognition at the National Career Awards Ceremony 2005, where the Institute of Career Guidance presented Careers Scotland with a UK award for the programme.
Careers Scotland is now working with schools and councils to extend Activate countrywide.
'I'M A LOT MORE POSITIVE NOW'
Gemma Sharkey, a 16-year-old drop-out from Lornshill Academy in Alloa, was persuaded to return to give the Activate programme a chance. She is now in Stirling Council's Get Ready for Work programme, in the care sector.
She said: "Taking part in Activate made all the difference to what I thought of school. I felt I was treated with respect and like an adult, and slowly I began to feel more confident.
"If it hadn't been for Activate, I think I would have left school and not gone into training or work. I'm a lot more positive about my future now."
Kieran Harty, also 16, joined the programme at St Margaret's High in Airdrie. He was having difficulty finalising his subject choices, when his guidance teacher suggested that he participate in the programme. He is now training as a modern apprentice in car maintenance in Coatbridge.
He said: "Activate really prepared me for the workplace, and helped me focus on what I wanted to do in my career. It has made a real difference to me. I would have left school anyway, but I think that I would have found it difficult getting any further with finding a job."