Tackling disaffection in children as young as five is the key to improving school-leavers' job prospects, according to a report on welfare to work schemes, published by the Children's Society this week.
The report, After the Windfall - Young People's Prospects in the Labour Market, argues that work needs to be done in schools - starting with infant classes - to combat exclusion, dropping out and disaffection, if youth employment figures are to improve. It also suggests that starting National Vocational Qualifications at 14 can motivate students switched off by the academic approach of the national curriculum.
A negative experience of education also influences young people's attitudes to training. Susan Bender, the report's author, said: "If they do not have a good experience of education it is difficult to engage them in another government scheme at a later stage. And if they do not get reading and writing sorted there are few jobs that they are ready to even begin training for."
Many of the young people interviewed for the report said they would like an apprenticeship system. The report recommends starting NVQs at 14 to enable students to gain credit for experience in the workplace before they leave school (see story right).
The report argues that the national curriculum concentrates too much on quantifiable, graded results at the expense of equipping young people with social and technical skills. However, Ms Bender admitted that A-level results are still what matters when it comes to earning a decent salary- yet they are appropriate for only 30 per cent of young people.
The standard of advice children receive before they leave school is often "astronomically bad," said Ms Bender. "Many of the young people thought that hairdressing was the only NVQ available."
Job centres are not much better, she said. Staff are obliged spend more time checking that claimants are not swindling the benefits system than making sure they are heading for the right job.
The report wants the employment services' two functions separated. "If you are sitting across from someone who can pull the plug on your benefit at any moment it is hard to have a constructive dialogue about your training and career needs," said Ms Bender.
Other proposals include a minimum wage and better employment conditions, monitoring of training schemes and a basic allowance for 16 to 18-year-olds whether in training or employment.
Some of these, such as the minimum wage, will form part of Labour's Welfare to Work plan. The Government is offering four "back-to-work" options for the young unemployed: full-time education, private job schemes or voluntary or environmental work.
The Children's Society does not want young people forced on to the schemes. The message is that 16 to 18-year-olds are not slackers needing whipped into line but have the will to work. All they need is the framework and skills to do so.
* After the Windfall - Young People's Prospects in the New Labour Market by Susan Bender is available from the Children's Society, Edward Rudolf House, Margery Street, London WC1 0JL