Increasing numbers of young people are so alienated from society they are dropping out and forming alternative criminal communities, according to a major new study.
Dr Clive Wilkinson, author of The Drop-Out Society: Young People on the Margin, says there are up to 100,000 youngsters in Britain who effectively left school at 12 or 13 and are outside any form of work or training.
"They inhabit their own, murky world of violence, drugs and crime, and talk about their life of crime as others would their careers. They say it gives them status and respect. These young people are in the bottom 20 per cent of the ability range, and feel that going through school and training with no hope of a job at the end is a complete waste of time, so they earn money in their own way," Dr Wilkinson says.
The study, published by the National Youth Agency, is based on interviews with 250 16 to 24-year-olds who live on council estates in Sunderland, Tyne and Wear.
Domestic problems, boredom at school, inability to get on with teachers and disillusionment with training schemes, which they often regard as slave labour with no chance of a permanent job, are the main reasons cited by the youngsters for dropping out.
Dr Wilkinson, rural development officer for the Community Council of Northumberland, and a former teacher and lecturer at Sunderland University, says that unless the problem of youth unemployment is tackled, the number of disaffected young people will continue to grow. This will threaten the long-term safety and stability of society, creating no-go areas in towns and cities throughout the country.
"There's nothing inevitable about youth unemployment, it's a political choice, and there has to be some decision made about whether we're going to do anything about it or not," he said.
Among other measures, he calls for the national curriculum to be loosened, enabling schools to cater more effectively for slow learners. Although the Careers Advisory Service performs an invaluable function in preparing young people for training and work, he says, its employees are often seen as teachers or part of the school system, and some young people have very negative views about this.
For low achievers, and those who show signs of dropping out, there is a need for new, non-traditional methods of working, he says. Compacts between schools and industry which provide incentives for young people should be strengthened and further resourced, and tracking and monitoring methods improved.
Dr Wilkinson also proposes a special training allowance, similar to the education grant, to break the link between benefits and training. There should also be phased financial incentives to persuade young people to stay on training programmes, and more resources for special needs training. And the Government should crack down on employers who sack trainees at the end of a course so they can take on new youngsters to provide cheap labour.
"I feel quite shaken by the dimensions of the problem and the implications of what is happening. We're talking about a downward spiral of despair, ignorance and hopelessness which is causing young people to feel they are not part of society at all.
"Just as individuals have to make responsible decisions about the nature and course of their lives, so also does society have to exercise its collective responsibility to provide those structures which make it possible for young people to achieve reasonable and worthwhile goals," he adds.