Neets need attention before it's too late to save their lives

21st August 2009 at 01:00

Congratulations to civil servant Jon Coles for reminding education professionals of the "life and death" significance of education and training ("15 per cent of Neets die within 10 years," August 7).

I fear that similar findings would result if this study were replicated elsewhere in Britain. Many experienced primary school teachers will have stories of Neets (individuals not in employment, education or training) rather like my own to share.

Here is what happened to three "drop outs" I enjoyed teaching when they were enthusiastic seven-year-olds. Child D committed suicide at 27 following his release from prison for armed robbery. Child M fell through a skylight on a factory roof and bled to death aged 14. Child D died in a road accident, aged 16, in a car stolen by his brother.

It is axiomatic that education and associated professionals should endeavour to ensure engagement in education and training by children and young people.

However, the study Mr Coles mentioned also raises some other significant issues. Colleagues who, like me, were trained in the 1960s will recognise sociologist Basil Bernstein's phrase that "education cannot compensate for society".

Yes, the relationship between education and society is dialectical, but recent research seems to confirm Mr Bernstein's immortal words. We may need to be much more radical with our society if we are to alter the short and brutal life histories of too many young people in Britain.

Of course, social class is associated with Neets. The UK has too many families living in poverty - more, proportionately, than in 1975 according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

What is also now clear is that income inequality is also significant. According to the OECD the UK is now one of the most income unequal societies.

In The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett demonstrate that income unequal societies have higher rates of infant mortality, lower levels of literacy and numeracy, higher drop-out rates, higher rates of teenage pregnancy, children with low aspirations, higher levels of drug abuse and crime, more children and young people in prison, lower levels of social mobility and lower levels of life expectancy. Here Mr Bernstein seems vindicated.

In the past 10 years everything has been suggested as magic bullets to close the achievement gap in education - from the bizarre (brain gym) to the obvious (the McKinsey report, which concluded that the quality of teachers was important). What we need to create is a more income equal society.

  • Andy Bowles, Teacher trainer, Leeds Metropolitan University

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