A Neet solution?

Joseph Lee

At the last count, this government had executed 29 policy U-turns, but no amount of evidence, it seems, will convince Chancellor George Osborne that austerity measures are not counterproductive. And, unfortunately for those in colleges, the wisdom of scrapping the education maintenance allowance (EMA) appears to be another such issue.

The EMA was one programme that had a proven impact on participation among 16- to 19-year-olds. The Institute for Fiscal Studies said its impact was "substantial" and that by raising the future earnings of its recipients, it more than paid for itself.

Now the government is trying to reinvent the wheel with a three-year, #163;126 million fund to pay providers to help 16- and 17-year-olds who are not in education, employment or training (Neets) get back into work or study.

The Department for Education has hailed it as a "radical scheme to rescue Neets". But was a "radical" solution necessary when we know that the EMA worked? This initiative, which will pay providers up to #163;2,200 per person for a variety of programmes if they help teenagers into long-term work or study, is essentially the Work Programme for under-18s. And it fails to address the issues of mass unemployment in recession.

It is telling that the contracts have mainly gone to companies involved in workforce development for employers rather than education. Indeed, one contract for the East Midlands involves no FE colleges. The companies aim to turn teenagers into the kind of people that business wants to hire, but they don't address the problem that employers increasingly are not interested in recruiting at all.

It's possible that these companies can equip teenagers who have poor qualifications and often little motivation with the skills and attitude to gain a lasting job. But in an economy where graduates from top universities are competing for jobs in call centres, all this would mean is that they had displaced someone else from the position.

What works in preventing young people from being damaged by the scarring effects of unemployment is to keep them in education, developing their skills until such a time when jobs are available. This latest Neets fund may be a sign of good intentions, but it is really an indication that the #163;340 million a year savings made by scrapping the EMA were illusory and will be dwarfed by the lifetime costs of more teenagers spending prolonged periods out of work and without qualifications.

When the government reversed course on taxes on pasties, caravans and charitable donations, Prime Minister David Cameron said it showed "resolve, strength and grit" to admit its mistakes. More of that, please.

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Joseph Lee

Joseph Lee is an award-winning freelance education journalist 

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