Howard Williamson coined the phrase "Status Zero" to define young people not in education, training or work.
"It's a powerful metaphor for people who count for nothing and are going nowhere," he said. "Civil servants call them NEET (not in education, employment or training) people but you lose the toughness of the concept, you forget many of them are living on the streets."
Dr Williamson, senior research associate in social policy at the University of Cardiff, is the co-author of a report on disaffected youth, commissioned by Mid Glamorgan Training and Enterprise Council.
The problem of young people who leave school and then seem to "disappear" has risen up the political agenda. It has been recognised by the recent Dearing report and the Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard.
Launching the Government's White Paper on education and training, she said that TECs, working with other partners, had a key role in identifying and motivating disaffected young people. They needed to be brought back into learning and given the core skills necessary to get a job.
Estimates vary as to how many are in this category. After all, these are the very people who are not registered with any kind of institution and so counting becomes difficult. Some put the figure at 12.5 per cent, but Dr Williamson claims it is nearer 20 per cent.
"It's a figure that keeps recurring: in the number of those who are persistent truants, who leave school with no qualification, who become unemployed, " he said. "I suspect there's overlap between these groups but no one has explored this."
The young people also come from a wide range of backgrounds. Dr Williamson helped to conduct an earlier piece of research among young people in South Glamorgan. The youngsters were largely detached from their families, often thrown out of home. They were living rough and resorted to illegal activity, burglary and drugs, in order to survive.
In the Mid Glamorgan study, however, the young people were largely supported by their families. "Dad would come up with the odd tenner, Nan would clothe them, life was currently not bad at all. To get into the labour market they would have to move from a highly economically depressed area and leave the emotional support they received from their neighbourhoods. It's a catch-22 situation."
Across the country TECs are funding and spearheading new drives to target the "disappearing" young people. County Durham TEC has invested Pounds 2 million over two years to help an estimated 900 people who slipped the net. Working with the local education authority, the careers service, the social services, probation services and local FE colleges it aims to set up specialised centres to give customised support to young people.
Learning support tutors will help young people to develop their self-confidence and social skills. They will also tackle problems in reading or writing. A personalised assessment service, led by specially trained careers advisers, will help young people to decide on a direction, depending on their particular areas of skill and interest.
The aim is to provide a personal development programme for every person in the target group, and will be shaped after seeking the views of the young people themselves.
"There's great potential in our young people," said Keith Mitchell, a County Durham TEC director. "The vast majority simply want the basic things in life: a stake in society, a foothold in the adult world, money and the chance to develop their interests. This project will help young people to achieve some of these things. Everyone has a responsibility to ensure that young people are valued. Otherwise some will feel pushed to the edges - which, as we know, can have severe consequences."
Birmingham TEC launched its 2020 programme to provide vocational training opportunities for pupils who have been excluded from mainstream education. In 199495, some 3,000 pupils in Birmingham were temporarily excluded from school because of behavioural or emotional problems. They often do not find training a positive experience as they are labelled as not having achieved, or as having under-achieved in school.
The Birmingham programme aims to get to young people before they become disillusioned. It provides vocational training in construction, metal fabrication, information technology and business administration. "The programme removes them from the school environment, where they are perceived as failures, and provides training in a work-orientated environment that is caring and supportive," said Elaine Giles, access co-ordinator.
Training is offered on a flexible basis, ranging from two hours a week to five days a week. One pupil with a history of disruptive behaviour at mainstream school made such rapid progress that he asked to join the programme full-time.
The programme has proved so successful that some schools are paying to send pupils whom they believe are at risk of being excluded prematurely into the world of further education and training.
"Some people are desperate to do something, they just do not want to go to school," said Ms Giles. "Now the Department for Education and Employment is freeing up key stage 4, we will be able to do more work with year 11."
Cheshire and the Wirral TEC has been researching why people leave training and has held a number of workshops with young people. Many people have multiple needs, and suffer problems such as homelessness, lack of family support, lack of literacy and numeracy and low self-esteem. Many feel that achievement for its own sake is only worthwhile if there is "someone there at the end of it to say they are proud of you".
Youth trainees identified three barriers to training: pay and status; overwork and bullying at placements, and making the transition from school to work. Researchers also found that young people were often unable to express themselves without aggression, so consultants were engaged to look at the issues of behaviour and presentation at work.
Mary Lord, a policy adviser at the TEC National Council, says that more has to be done in the educational system for pupils under 14.
"Many people are getting excluded, and they are getting younger," she said. "More must be done at primary school and earlier secondary school to prevent demotivation. Then there must be high-quality and impartial careers guidance.
"There needs to be a customised approach for each individual. Some have completely rejected the system, and you have to make individual provision. That is resource-intensive and that is why partnership is important."
Many people are hostile to training because they cannot see its relevance, says Dr Williamson. "Youth work is an act of faith, not a science. We need flexible programmes to re-socialise people back into mainstream activity rather than an existence of shady dealings on the edge.
"This subject is being discussed at every political corner, but people just do not know what they are talking about. Politicians use the media to demonise young people. Their only experience is when they are making an insurance claim for a stolen car radio."
TES february 7 1997 Percentage of group of 14- to 17-year olds north news
1996 HOME OFFICE DATA ON PUPIL EXCLUSIONS
* Over 16,000 permanent pupil exclusions * 100,000 temporary exclusions * 200,000 18- to20-year-olds excluded from education, training and employment * Of 8,000 young people leaving care, 75 per cent have no qualification or job
1996 HOME OFFICE DATA ON OFFENCES AMONG DISAFFECTED PUPILS
* Crime on the increase * Truancy on the increase * One in two young offenders lacks basic skills * Girls as likely as boys to commit vandalism * Ethnic minorities suffer more discrimination
1996 TEC DATA ON UNEMPLOYMENT AMONG FORMER YOUTH TRAINEES
* 600,000 people aged 18-25 registered unemployed * 250,000 people aged 18-25 long-term unemployed * One in eight 18- 20-year-olds are not in employment, education or training * One in five people unemployed for more than six months is under 20
'I felt I wasn't getting anywhere'
At 14, David Harper, from Eastington in County Durham did one week's work experience at a care centre and thoroughly enjoyed it.
But by the age of 16 he was disillusioned and not enjoying school. He did not like the atmosphere or the teachers. Although he got three Cs and a B at GCSE, and a City and Guilds pass, he felt he should have done better.
"During this period I lost confidence," he said. "I had no respect for my teachers. I was given no advice, no counselling."
He enrolled for an Advanced GNVQ in business administration at a local college but left after the first year. "I felt I wasn't getting anywhere. I wanted to get some money. The details of the course were misleading, or at least it wasn't what I was expecting. All I could see at the end of it was one person finding employment."
He might have drifted and ended up with nothing but he received support from a partnership between the Prince's Trust and County Durham TEC. They helped to restore his confidence and he went on a team-building course. They also helped to get him an interview with a company and he found employment working with autistic people - the kind of job he had so enjoyed when he was 14.
He thinks the job is superb and is full of praise for his supporters. Looking back he feels he should have received more guidance when he was younger, and more information about what was available to him.
Many of his friends are on youth training schemes but some have nothing at all and of those, some are not even looking. "I say you have got to go out and find something, but I did not know where to look."