Unprecedented attention is now being given to teenagers at the margins of education and work. But how much do we know about these young people and what should be done to help them?
There is considerable evidence of persistent truancy, rising exclusions and extensive underachievement in schools. There are also large numbers of teenagers outside of education, training or at work (so-called "status zero") - 7-8 per cent of 16-year-olds and 8-9 per cent of 17-year-olds.
But there is no evidence for the emergence of a youth underclass, structurally locked out from wider society. Certain groups of young people suffer multiple disadvantage: children leaving care, young offenders, and the young homeless. But generally those who are struggling move in and out of, and combine, full and part-time education, work and unemployment, through complex pathways during their late teens. This mobility does not support the idea that there is a youth underclass waiting to be brought back into the mainstream by an army of youth workers.
Nor are disaffected youths only male. Boys make up the majority of those excluded from school and those who commit criminal offences. But gender differences are negligible at the lowest end of attainment, particularly in comprehensive schools, where there is only a 1 per cent difference between the proportion of girls and boys leaving school without qualifications. Nor is regular truancy differentiated by gender. By the time they reach 17, girls are just as likely as boys to be in status zero. The single most powerful predictor of post-16 outcomes is attainment at GCSE:38 per cent of those in status zero have no GCSEs, while just 3 per cent have five A to C grades.
Moreover, the introduction of the GCSE also appears to have been the most important factor behind the rise in full-time education numbers between 1987 and 1993. Consequently, the best way to reduce the status zero group would be to raise levels of achievement in GCSEs at the lowest end.
What GCSE target should be set for the lowest attainers? The new target to reduce the percentage of young people leaving school without any qualifications will be readily understood by schools.
Yet the chances of entering the ranks of the excluded decline most sharply when pupils achieve five or more D-G grades, rather than just one or more lower grades. This suggests a target for reducing the proportion of 16-year-olds failing to get at least 20 GCSE points.
Radical improvement in completion rates in 16-19 education is also required. Fewer than half of students progress from intermediate to advanced levels and 30 per cent of those entering full-time education courses drop out. Better careers advice will help, as will stronger partnerships between providers who have allowed the competitive tertiary marketplace to distort their interaction with potential students.
But above all, we need qualifications reform. A unitised framework for qualifications with smaller building blocks, credits for achievement and flexible re-entry points, would cut wastage. In the long-term we need a unified 14-19 curriculum. It's a familiar plea, but none the less necessary for that.
Only one in five of those who start work at 16 gets any additional qualification by 18. The new right to day release for 16 to 18-year-olds is important, but there may still be young people who do not get training. Nobody can afford to enter full adult life without level 2 qualifications (GCSE equivalents for 16 to 19-year-olds), so traineeships should be mandatory in the regular youth labour market.
Finally, structural reform is imperative. Re-orientation of both the careers and youth services towards at-risk groups will be a valuable reform - so long as these remain universal services. But it raises questions for training and enterprise councils, who could then lose their brokerage role for National Traineeships, at the same time as the New Deal squeezes them out of their other big programme area. If you add the Government's new regional development agencies into the picture, and the noises from the Department for Trade and Industry about its new focus on entrepreneurship, then the death-knell starts to sound for TECs in their current form.
What of the rest of the tertiary world? A stronger regional level would provide the framework for greater co-ordination and could be achieved by boosting the capacity of regional development agencies, alongside a parallel development of beefed-up Further Education Funding Council regional committees. A regional structure could then be used for the development of unified funding systems, as a prelude to the emergence of regional government as the natural locus for light-touch planning and funding of tertiary education and training as a whole.
Nick Pearce is senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research.