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Neet acronym is far from a neat description

Words may not always be important, but sometimes they are - and in the case of the ghastly acronym Neet (not in education, employment or training) that is certainly the case.

Leighton Andrews, the Assembly education minister, is right to condemn this convenient and sanitised shorthand that veils a complex picture of broken dreams, institutional rejection and personal isolation. If anything, the term should be Nete, to reflect the interruption of the typical pathway from education, through training into employment, and should be prefaced by "young people" who are in this predicament. Indeed, early references nearly always spoke of young people or "those" who are Neet; policy convenience abbreviated it further and tended to lose sight of the individuals behind the label.

There are two salient background points that should be made. First, the term Neet was coined in March 1996 by a senior Home Office civil servant who detected a resistance on the part of policy-makers to working with an earlier, and often equally controversial phrase "status zer0". That was how Neet found its way into government-speak.

Second, the earlier term was coined in 1993 during research - in South Glamorgan - that first brought the plight of these young people to public attention. It was initially a technical classification, status 0, to be set against those in education (status 1), training (status 2) and employment (status 3). But, by invoking the idea of "zer0", it also seemed to be a metaphor for young people who, in policy terms, at the time counted for nothing and were going nowhere.

That original research controversially suggested that as many as 16 to 23 per cent of 16- and 17-year-olds might, at any one time, be in status zer0. And despite some inevitable weaknesses in the methodology arising from trying to pin down the scale of an only partially visible population, few have rebutted the broad thrust of that projection ever since. For various reasons, all kinds of official statistics are ultimately likely to be underestimates. Young people who do not wish to be found are often rather skilled at avoiding being counted.

Most of those in this situation do not want to be there, and will respond positively to at least some of the more robust support envisaged in the Welsh Neet strategy. This is the critical point: whatever the scale of the phenomenon - and even if it is now at an "all-time high" in Wales at some 13 per cent, or more than 15,000 individuals aged 16 and 17 - a very careful differentiation of their needs and aspirations is required. If we get that wrong, any policy fails at the first step.

My view is that the majority remain what I have called "essentially confused": they have lost their way, are not intrinsically alienated (or "disaffected" - another dreadful word) from learning or working, and would welcome contact, guidance and support, though not necessarily unconditionally. A smaller group are those I once described as "temporarily sidetracked", with more important things to deal with in their lives right now (such as caring responsibilities or personal health issues) but again not fundamentally hostile to returning to the mainstream. With appropriate understanding, they will - in time - return, given half a chance.

The more intractable group are those I call the "deeply alienated", who subdivide into the purposeful and the purposeless. The former have found what one young man described as "alternative ways of living"; the latter don't care and are wrapped up in the drink and drugs cultures. It is this group who present the major challenge, but they are the ones who have largely been neglected, for they do not present the relatively quick wins that those in receipt of funding to address the Neet phenomenon need to achieve if targets are to be fulfilled. As a result, a cherry-picking process ensues and the most excluded remain consigned firmly to the edge, often untouched by policy intervention.

It was in Wales that early measures to address "status zer0" people were pioneered. The Youth Access Initiative preceded the heady days of New Labour's commitments to social inclusion. The Assembly has since tried to extend entitlements and build learning pathways. But the Neet phenomenon has been stubbornly resistant to policy attention.

With the recession, it will get harder, though fatalistic references to a "lost generation" are unhelpful. We may have to think more creatively about how we construct purposeful activity for these young people; my experience as a youth worker is that most of them are willing to consider "trade-offs" of various kinds. So first we have to engage with those who are Neet and, where labour market possibilities for them are slim, we need dialogue and negotiation about the alternatives that might provide an initial sense of purpose. Then we take things from there.

What always has to be borne in mind, drawing on the headline from the newspaper article on the South Glamorgan study that propelled the issue of "status zer0 youth" into the political consciousness in 1994, is that these are individuals who are "too young and too precious to waste".

Dr Howard Williamson, Professor of European youth policy, Glamorgan University.

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