A good relationship with even just one teacher can keep children who are in danger of becoming Neet engaged in education, according to a new study.
Having this bond can stop students feeling "at risk" in school, particularly if they are female, researchers found.
A strong rapport with trusted adults in the community can also be "crucial" to helping young people at risk of becoming disengaged stay in school, the study by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) says.
NFER researchers reviewed existing studies in order to identify what helps secondary school students at risk of becoming Neet (not in education, employment or training).
The resulting literature review says that the content of the curriculum is often less important for young people than positive, constructive teaching approaches and supportive learning environments.
Being flexible - varying teaching methods to keep lessons "fun and interactive" - can also help to maintain young people's interest.
Teachers should also use "close direction" of students and careful classroom management to ensure they remain on task, the study advises.
Types of Neet
The academics identify three different categories of Neets. Those who are "open to learning" are likely to re-engage in education in the short term and have higher levels of attainment and better attitudes towards school than other young people who are Neet.
"Undecided Neets" have similar characteristics, but are dissatisfied with available opportunities and their ability to access what they want to do.
"Sustained Neets" are the most difficult to re-engage in education - they have negative experiences of school, higher levels of truancy and exclusion, and lower academic attainment.
The NFER study shows there is a gap in research around effective strategies to engage or re-engage Neets who are open to learning or undecided.
But what does work, researchers found, are:
- positive teaching approaches;
- supportive and informal learning environments;
- supportive relationships with teachers;
- high-quality advice and guidance;
- and the availability of high-quality courses that give young people opportunities to progress to their choice of further learning or employment.
The findings come from one of four recent reviews carried out on the same topic by the NFER. The report says it is important not to present a "deficit model that 'blames' Neet young people for their situation".
Instead, schools should use constructive teaching practices that create a "positive" learning environment. Teachers should try to motivate and encourage students, and should show an interest in their work.
Teachers should show teenagers respect, and let them know they are cared about and understood. They should listen to their views and involve them in decision-making.
Researchers also found treating students like adults - for example, through informal teaching or by giving them more independence - improved their motivation to learn as well as their behaviour. They discovered that discussing preferred methods of learning with students can play a "pivotal role" in re-engaging them in education.
The report also says that students need to perceive as relevant to their lives the courses and qualifications that can have a positive impact on their engagement with learning; that theoretical and practical learning should be combined; and that opportunities for learning in an informal atmosphere should be provided.
These include apprenticeships and vocational options - but they must be high quality and help teenagers progress to further or higher education or employment.
"In the context of a current focus on academic attainment, and in order to improve participation and attainment, it is important that schools have the flexibility to provide a personalised curriculum to meet the needs of all young people," the report says.
HOW TO HELP 'AT RISK' STUDENTS
Encourage students to take ownership of decisions about their learning.
Use flexible approaches to teaching so that all students are engaged and stimulated.
Make sure teachers have knowledge, skills and expertise in their subject area, particularly in vocational subjects, as well as pedagogical expertise.
Ensure students develop a relationship with a trusted adult who can help them to keep on track with their learning.
Be alert to when students need extra support - for example, when they are not managing their workload or need catch-up tuition.
Create a warm, supportive environment where teachers show interest in learners and their work.
Create an environment based on mutual respect where students can develop an independent approach to learning.
Support and guidance:
Provide well-informed, impartial careers information, advice and guidance, including course taster sessions. This is especially important for those who are unsure about the way forward and which career or qualifications they want to pursue.
Curriculum and qualifications' content:
Give students a wide choice of subjects and courses to suit their interests and learning styles.
Provide a flexible and personalised curriculum so that young people can study the most appropriate qualification at the most appropriate place for them.
Have, where relevant, practical and unit-based assessments that provide the opportunity to make incremental progress, are flexible in terms of start and completion dates, and offer the option to retake courses if needed.
Make sure that curricula and qualifications provide opportunities for learners to develop personal, social and employability skills.
It is important that schools have the flexibility to provide a personalised curriculum
Bielby, G. et al. Review of the Curriculum and Qualification Needs of Young People Who Are At Risk of Disengagement (2012). National Foundation for Educational Research