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Barriers to gaining a single exam

Task group highlights hard core of NEETs ahead of publishing strategy to address problems.

A hard core of teenage drinkers, drug-takers and single mums will be targeted under a new strategy to prevent problem 15-year-olds dropping out of school or college without a single qualification, TES Cymru can reveal today.

For the past six months an Assembly government task group has been exploring the social reasons behind the exam failure of young people not in education, employment, or training (NEETS).

The teenager hailing from a family with high unemployment, the binge drinker, the cannabis smoker, the young person caught up in domestic violence or the teenage mum are all expected to be prime targets in a strategy to raise the life chances of all young people, due to be launched in March.

The action plan, a product of the NEET task and finish group, is expected to attack disaffection in the classroom more directly than ever before.

Representatives from Careers Wales, Young People's Partnerships and voluntary organisations make up the group that has been working behind the scenes on the attainment-raising piece of work.

But there were also fears this week that its work may be hampered by lack of funding as education budgets are tightened up.

Positive figures released at the end of last year show that the Assembly government may be winning the war with 15-year-old underachievers.

Last year 15 per cent fewer, 682, left full-time education without a recognised qualification. This compares with 807 in 2006 and represents 1.7 per cent of pupils in the age group. The percentage of boys was 2.1 and girls 1.4 per cent.

But there is also recognition that different groups of challenging young people need specific intervention, something the task group has been trying to address.

Jane Hutt, Wales's education minister, believes no pupil should leave education without an approved qualification by 2010. Early intervention is seen as the best way of fighting the problem, but it's not straightforward.

"Those with children or domestic responsibilities, or drug or alcohol problems, require different support from the unemployed," an Assembly government spokeswoman said.

The government's strategy, which will go out for consultation, focuses on existing ways of identifying NEETs and their needs, learning provision in and out of schoolcollege, available learning and emotional and financial support. It also wants to tackle youth and adult NEETs together to break the cycle of unemployment within families.

Chris Howard, an executive member of the National Association of Head Teachers Cymru and head of Lewis School Pengam, welcomed the drop in numbers of unqualified 15-year-olds.

"Historically, this has been an issue in Wales," he said.

"We've found qualifications that keep them on track and allow them to maintain some connection with school and education. It's down to the hard work that schools have done with partners."

But he said there was a battle over qualifications that the government had failed to acknowledge, such as activity-based ASDAN awards, aimed at developing life skills, which are recognised in England, and the Duke of Edinburgh's Award.

"These engage youngsters and maintain their connection with learning but don't get them far on the skills ladder. You can also get module awards on the way to NVQ1 - clear steps along the route to a skills qualification - but the Assembly government won't recognise those either."

Mr Howard said schools were already striving to reach NEETs. "We do a lot of work with 14-16 local area networks, Careers Wales, the education service and youth service. You have to find ways to persuade youngsters to go to a training institution, and that's difficult with drug users and in cases of social dislocation."

David Evans, secretary of NUT Cymru, said the figures on 15-year-olds showed initiatives are working. "We'd encourage the government to achieve a similar figure for next year, 15 per cent is a significant drop. But there's doubt about how it will sustain that with funding being cut.

"We aren't part of the NEET group and haven't seen its remit. I'd like to see exactly what it is charged with. We'd expect to be kept informed of any findings."

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