Young people who fail to secure work or a place in education or training in the years immediately after school continue to suffer the consequences 20 years on, groundbreaking new research shows.
The study followed two cohorts of more than 10,000 young people, comparing those who were not in education, employment or training (Neet) after school with other young people 10 years and 20 years on.
The study is the first of its kind in the UK to measure the effects of being Neet into people’s thirties.
“The shadow of Neet status was cast a long period after youth,” said lead researcher Zhiqiang Feng, research fellow for the Longitudinal Studies Centre Scotland.
Almost a third of the 16- to 19-year-olds classed as Neet in 1991 whom the researchers tracked were also out of employment or education in 2011, when they were in their late thirties. This was close to three times the rate for non-Neet young people.
Even those whose Neet experience was relatively short-lived and who were found to be in work 10 years on were less likely to flourish.
This was the “scarring effect of Neet status”, the researchers said: young people who had been Neet were more likely to be unemployed, in low-status jobs if they did find work, and to suffer poor physical and mental health.
School success protects
The report, which looks at young people in Scotland, calls for measures to boost educational attainment and attendance, because success in school was found to be the most important factor in protecting young people from becoming Neet.
Students who have no qualifications at SCQF level 5 (equivalent to GCSE) or higher at the end of compulsory schooling are 10 times as likely to be Neet if they are male and seven times as likely if they are female, the research shows.
Previous long-term studies followed subjects only into their twenties, the report says, and focused on a narrower range of issues.
There have been significant improvements in Neet statistics in recent years. The latest official figures for July to September this year record 848,000 Neets aged 16 to 24 in the UK. The proportion of 16-18-year-olds in England who were Neet stood at 10.2 per cent this summer – the lowest rate for that time of year since records began in 2000.
But heads predict that levels could rise again owing to the government’s drive to get 90 per cent of pupils studying the English Baccalaureate (EBac) suite of academic subjects.
David Hermitt, chief executive of Congleton Multi-Academy Trust in Cheshire, which has a Neet rate of 0 per cent for 16-year-olds, said: “We put manpower behind reducing Neets and intervene with pupils long before they have to make decisions about their futures.
“We also provide a very broad curriculum, including vocational education, so the vast majority can have something purposeful to move on to at 16. We know it is important because of the kind of things highlighted in this research.
“But the EBac is a threat as it is not right for everybody and takes away the value children can place on non-EBac activities. It could well lead to a rise in Neets.”
Ken Spours, co-director of the Centre for Post-14 Research and Innovation at the UCL Institute of Education, said the pool of Neets would continue to be fed by a new underclass he labelled “the missing middle”. This was the 50 per cent of learners who were not academically able enough to complete a full set of A-levels, but who could not find good opportunities in apprenticeships, he explained.
“Government policy, which only focuses at the fringes – A-levels and apprenticeships – will leave a precarious middle which will feed Neet-dom”, Professor Spours said.
‘It’s hard to break the cycle’
Sacha Corcoran, principal of the Big Creative Academy in Walthamstow, East London, knows a thing or two about being Neet. At 16, she was pregnant and homeless. But she pursued a career in education after taking a degree at the age of 26.
She now runs a school for 16- to 19-year-olds, many of whom are from disadvantaged backgrounds, offering A-level-equivalent vocational programmes in the arts.
Ms Corcoran highlights the key issue of 18-year-olds on Jobseeker’s Allowance not being allowed to take full-time courses while claiming the benefit. This locks them into a lifetime of unemployment and poorly paid work, she says.
“It’s a vicious circle,” she adds. “You can get into a peer group where it is normal to just hang around outside betting shops during the day, for example. It is really hard to break the cycle.”
Cuts to services such as Connexions – which supported young people into training and work – have removed an important lifeline for those who lack confidence, Ms Corcoran warns.
Studies have examined the impact of being Neet on health, but in the past many have used self-reported indicators instead of objective measures.
The Scottish research published last month looked at the kind of drugs being prescribed to the cohorts it was tracking, and hospital admissions after an A&E visit.
The study finds that nearly half of young people who were Neet in 2001 were treated for depression or anxiety roughly 10 years later. Slightly over a quarter of non-Neets had the same experience.
Neet young people were also more likely to be admitted to hospital after a visit to A&E and were up to eight times more likely to be hospitalised for self-harm after a visit to A&E.