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Neets can be helped, but it takes money

Commnet: Asha Khemka

Commnet: Asha Khemka

Helping students fulfil their potential and make a success of their lives is the reason we work in further education. Yet the transformational effect that education has on people's lives takes on even greater significance when the student has overcome personal difficulties or limited life chances to re-engage in learning - in some cases after several years out of the system.

I am, of course, talking about Neets - those not in education, employment or training. Supporting this group of learners is one of my greatest passions. Yet despite the Government's promises to do more to help jobless young people, the reality is sadly quite different.

The DCSF's current national Neet figure for 16 to 18-year-olds of 10.3 per cent paints a very sad picture indeed. The Government's target is to reduce the proportion of Neets by 2 per cent by 2010. Is there a framework to deliver this target? Do we have what it takes?

There are varied and complex reasons why a young person becomes Neet. Some have been in trouble with the police. Others have problems with drugs and alcohol or have suffered bullying or domestic violence. Some have caring responsibilities at home which prevent them from attending school.

They are the hardest group to reach and the most difficult to retain. It is not simply a matter of enrolling them on a programme and hoping for the best. It is about having the appropriate set-up where these young people are nurtured, encouraged and given the right support.

They need to be praised and given self-confidence, because the majority have never been praised in their lives - not at home, school or elsewhere. They need to be tactfully persuaded to develop self-belief and see a positive future in front of them.

This is why, in 2008, my college opened a dedicated Neet centre. Located in the former coal-mining community of Sutton-in-Ashfield, it provides tailored vocational programmes to meet the social and educational needs of teenagers who have been failed by the system, or lack the confidence to access our mainstream provision. Classes consist of no more than 13 students, who have access to a free bus service and a free breakfast.

In its first year, 49 of the teenagers enrolled at the centre successfully completed their programme. The majority progressed to the next level, and three entered employment. In the second year, 116 out of 120 students completed their programme and 104 progressed into work or further training at our main college sites.

We're desperate to build on this success by opening a Neet centre in Mansfield, a town struggling to recover from the demise of the mining and textile industries. A site has been earmarked and the centre will cost around pound;750,000 to get up and running. Frustratingly, I've struggled to persuade government departments even to consider this sort of support.

But doing nothing is not an option. This is why my charity, the Inspire and Achieve Foundation, is staging a fundraising gala dinner at Lord's Cricket Ground this evening. We all have a role to play in making sure nobody in our communities gets left behind. Yet, without Government support for specialist centres like ours, colleges can only do so much.

For me, this begs the question: Are ministers really interested in helping Neets? If they are, they must give us the tools.

Asha Khemka OBE Principal and chief executive, West Nottinghamshire College, and founder, Inspire and Achieve Foundation.

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