The myths of disaffection

17th July 1998 at 01:00
A new report, Wasted Youth, paints a bleak picture. But Josh Hillman argues that answers lie in breaking down boundaries betweenschool, work and the community

SOCIETY is haunted by the spectre of disaffected youth: the feckless young criminal with no future and few morals. In part, this is a media construct, but behind the headlines is the reality of educational under-achievement and social exclusion.

The statistics brought together in the Institute for Public Policy Research report, Wasted Youth, paint a bleak picture: large and overlapping groups (nearly one in 10) play truant at least once a week, leave school without any qualifications, and then do not go into education, training or employment.

There is no evidence, however, for the emergence of a distinct youth underclass. While there are concentrations of problems, many young people move in and out of different categories (full-time and part-time education and work, and unemployment) through complex pathways during their late teens.

Another myth is that disaffected youth tends to be male. It is mainly boys who are excluded from school or who ultimately commit crimes, but educational under-achievement and disaffection are not particularly male problems. Gender differences are negligible at the low end of attainment, in regular truancy and in dropping out of education, training or employment by the age of 17.

Factors other than gender are much more significant. Most important, there are strong associations with social and family background, and with previous attainment (notably the acquisition of basic skills).

Furthermore, certain groups suffer more than others. Those in care, the young homeless, those with special needs, certain ethnic minorities and others experience particular disadvantage, albeit with specific causes and consequences. Disaffection is also caused by boredom with the school environment, bullying and peer-group pressures.

These long-neglected problems have now become a central and explicit concern for the Government, particularly through its Social Exclusion Unit. We need to go a step further by opening up schools more to the outside world.

This could be done by encouraging greater involvement of post-compulsory education institutions in the 14-16 age group; by developing innovations that break down boundaries between schools, the world of work, and the community (eg associate teachers, business units in schools, mentorship schemes, industry-specific and citizenship curriculum initiatives); by utilising new technologies to develop "virtual schools"; and by bringing new entry and re-entry points to those rarely present in school.

However, there are limits to what can be done in the current educational framework. It is particularly vital to look right across the 14-19 age range. The problem of under-achievement and non-participation is partly caused by the sharp break at 16. GCSE performance is the key determinant of post-16 activity, effectively sorting young people into fairly rigid tracks of academic, general vocational and work-based routes, and also consigning a significant minority to nothing at all.

Overlaying this are further difficulties caused by highly complex systems of organisation and funding. These encourage dysfunctional competition for students, and embody a number of inequalities between similar provision provided in different institutions. Meanwhile, outside of formal education, disaffected and vulnerable young people (particularly those in care) often receive fragmented and confusing services from different departments within local government.

Further problems include the in-built disincentives to target or meet the needs of the disadvantaged - most notably the interaction of league tables and funding systems. In schools, the concentration in the recent past on the 5 A*-C benchmark encourages schools facing pupil-led funding to concentrate their efforts on pupils around and just below this level, and to neglect under-achievers.

Similarly, training and enterprise councils, whose league tables take no account of the educational level or socio-economic background of the young people they serve, have little incentive to cater for the disadvantaged - particularly since 30 per cent of this funding is output-related.

Longer-term strategies for raising participation and achievement will require a more fundamental reform agenda. First, a unified 14-19 curriculum framework needs to be developed, incorporating academic, general vocational and work-based qualifications. This is vital to raising achievement for all and equipping young people with the broad knowledge, as well as the specialist skills, they need for the future.

Second, there needs to be an integration of local services, increasingly on the basis of a focus on the whole needs of client groups, particularly the vulnerable, rather than on the basis of professional and disciplinary boundaries.

Third, tertiary education and training should increasingly be organised on a regional basis. This could be based on developing the capacity of regional development agencies alongside the parallel development of beefed-up Further Education Funding Council regional committees with stronger local authority representation, in order to develop greater coherence and co-ordination of service.

This regional structure could also be used for the development of unified post-16 funding systems. Regional government, should it come to pass, could eventually be the natural locus for light-touch planning, foresight and funding of the tertiary sector.

Fourth, traineeships should be extended across the full-time youth labour market to ensure that all those entering jobs get training and develop marketable skills.

Finally, the Government should consider development of a single allowance for 16 to 19-year-olds to replace existing benefits and allowances, providing a coherent system of financial support for young people participating in education and training.

Recent Government initiatives are likely to have an immediate impact on disaffected and under-achieving young people. But it is time now to think about a more radical agenda for the future.

Josh Hillman is senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research

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