Last month, the Education Policy Institute (EPI) published a blog arguing that the Neet (not in education, employment or training) agenda had slipped down the list of government priorities. I agree that is the case. I suspect that – because of a combination of high employment rates and an unwavering naivety – the apprenticeship levy and reforms will mean Neet becomes a thing of the past.
But if the Neet agenda has slipped down the government’s, from my perspective, the concept of raising the participation age (RPA) to 18 has been erased completely. The law – in case you’ve forgotten – now specifies that young people must remain full-time education or training until the age of 18.
I cannot remember the last time RPA compliance was raised in conversation with officials, or when ministers last committed themselves to it as a concept. “So what?” I hear you ask. “Surely we don’t need to be reminded about RPA. Everyone knows about it now – young people, parents, schools – and we are just getting on with it?”
Well, the EPI blog contained some data that supports a suspicion that myself and my colleagues at City College Norwich have had for some time: RPA is failing and increasing numbers of our young people are not compliant.
Struggling to deliver
Department for Education data published in August showed that 18.4 per cent of 16- to 18- year-olds are in neither education nor training. The EPI helped me dig further in the data to establish that that the proportion of 16-18s in work without training has been rising for the last three years and now stands at 7.1 per cent. That is 134,000 young people who the RPA legislation states must be getting education and training who are not.
There are some compelling reasons why RPA was always going to struggle to deliver its goal. The first is that we’ve assumed it is “job done” and stopped talking about it. A second is that there are no sanctions associated with it. While it might be argued that the apprenticeship levy is a “carrot” to employers to ensure the training of young employees, it simply isn’t enough.
Employers can employ 16- to 18-year-olds in the knowledge that they are not getting any education and training without any fear of sanction, censure or criticism.
Every year, young people from my college are recruited to full-time employment and drop out of education and training. The data from HM Revenue and Customs makes this absolutely transparent, but no action has been forthcoming.
And not once, despite considerable prompting, has an employer come to us and told us that they need to find a way of providing part-time education and training for a young person they are employing.
In an era where a parent can be fined and taken to court for missing one day of pre-16 schooling for a family holiday, we have a system that imposes absolutely no censure at all if their 16-year-old misses all 365 days of the year.
I’m not advocating applying pre-16 rules to 16-18 education, but the gap between the two approaches is too great. Colleges such as mine work hard with parents and employers to find creative solutions to enable young people to work and study, but it requires incentivising for all the parties concerned.
One change that I would make would be to scrap the concept of and performance measures associated with Neet and replace it with “Net”: not in education or training. Record the numbers not receiving education and training and hold us all accountable – as providers, local authorities, government and as a society – for tackling that issue. This change would expose for all to see the issue of young people in employment not getting the education and training they need and deserve.
I’m not a policymaker, but I see too many young people, often supported by their families, taking poor decisions to engage in the short-term gain of low skilled employment to the detriment of education and training, which in the long term would surely serve them better.
It’s time we are honest with ourselves. If we believe that our country requires a better-skilled workforce as well as a better-educated population, then RPA needs placing at the very top of the list of priorities, and given the teeth it needs to really bite.
Jerry White is deputy principal at City College Norwich. He tweets @JerryWhiteCCN