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Why focusing on post-16s is not such a Neet idea

If there's one lesson we might have expected the Government to learn from the current economic crisis, it's the importance of keeping one eye on the long game. But what last week's Budget had to say on education and skills suggests the lesson has been lost along the way.

The approach is too like sticking a plaster on a gaping wound. By focusing on young people aged 16 and over, the Government is throwing money at the symptoms of problems in our education system without tackling the causes.

The political justification for this focus is clear: it is feared that young people will substantially add to Neet (not in education, employment or training) and unemployment figures during a recession.

The measures are to be welcomed, but they do not add up to a long-term strategy for investment in young people and a return to economic stability. Many of today's Neets will have been children who disengaged from their education quite early on. For example, a staggering 8 per cent of children leave primary school with reading and numeracy levels below those of the average seven-year-old. Unless we do something about this, trying to re-engage some 16 to 19-year-olds in education and training will always be an uphill struggle.

There are certain preventive programmes that deliver proven long-term benefits to the exchequer. For example, it has been estimated that every Pounds 1 spent on Reading Recovery, a programme of tuition for very poor readers, saves the Treasury more than Pounds 10 in the long term. The Family-Nurse Partnership, a support programme for young mothers at risk and their children, saves Pounds 4 for every Pounds 1 spent by the time the children turn 15.

These rates of return would be a no-brainer in the private sector. Yet the Pounds 57 million the Government is spending this year on these two initiatives are just drops in the ocean compared with the Pounds 20bn it plans to spend this year on Trident defence and the Pounds 39.8bn it spends on education as a whole.

When times are tight, we need to be even wiser about how valuable cash is invested in our education system. This year's Budget was a missed opportunity.

Sonia Sodha, Acting head of the Capabilities Programme at Demos.

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