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Keith E Rice's Integrated SocioPsychology Blog & Pages

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NEETs – are the Tories on the Right Path?

What a pleasure when, from a sociopsychological point of view, some of the politicians appear to be getting it right for once. Or at least partly right! Taking some tentative steps on the right path, maybe….

David Cameron and David Willets have declared they want to solve the ‘NEET problem’ as part of the Conservatives’ plans to sort out ‘Broken Britain’.

In case you’re not familiar with ‘NEET’, it’s the acronym for ‘Not in Education, Employment or Training’ – and the London School of Economics says that 18% of 16-17-year-olds are NEETs. (Department of Children, Familes & Schools (DCFS) data about a year ago had the figure at around 11%. (Although we didn’t call them NEETs back then, the focus of the HemsMESH project 1999-2001 was how to make unemployed teenagers more employable. The national average then was said to be 14%.)

According to research by think tank Reform, NEETs are more likely than their peers to use drugs, be involved in crime, have poor health and have children young – nearly two-thirds of NEET females were mothers by the age of 21, 6 times the rate in the rest of the population.

Willets, Shadow Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities & Skills, has drawn increased attention to NEETs this week, with a particular emphasis on their negative impact on family life. It seems that many young women are preferring to raise their children as single mothers rather than be partnered long-term with a man who had no means of support and no apparent prospects.

According to Willets, “One of the things some lone parents say is, where are the reliable men with whom they can have a stable relationship?”

Willets has been influenced by William Julius Wilson (1987) who has been studying this problem in depth in American cities. Wilson is concerned that, via a combination of drugs, prison and being on welfare, the ‘marriageable pool’ of men in some US cities is now dangerously low.

So Cameron and Willets are proposing a £100M fund to allow social enterprises such as charities to provide vocational training. The latter says, “There is a particular problem about white, working class men and we are not providing them with the first steps to useful skills. When we do that, I believe we could make them much better bets as a partner. When these young men have got a useful skill and are then holding down a job, at that point they will also be able to hold down a relationship. They will be people who can then live up to family responsibilities.”

On the face of it, the Cameron-Willets proposal seems to add little to the bill introduced to Parliament in January by Ed Balls, DCFS Secretary of State, which will extend the school leaving age to 18 by 2015 and force schools to extend the range of vocational qualifications on offer to 6th Formers. Balls’ proposals  would oblige all 16-18-year-olds either to stay on at school or undertake a full-time college course or enter employment which also provided accredited training. They even included a £100M ‘safety net’ for NEETs!

What does seem to be different about the Cameron-Willets proposal is allowing for social enterprises previously outside the education system to deliver vocational training.

And, of course, Willet’s highlighting of the effect the ‘NEETs problem’ is having on the formation – non-formation?  – of stable male-female relationships at the young and poor end of the social spectr

Do they really want to be there?
In 2004 the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) was introduced. This means-tested benefit gave poorer students up to £30 a week to encourage 16-year-olds either to stay on in the 6th Form or study full-time at a further education college.

At the same time a number of secondary schools began surreptitiously lowering the entry standards for 6th Form. Generally speaking, most schools formally set the bar at five A*-C GCSEs (including Maths and English)  but they have the discretion to consider individual cases on their own merits – and when each individual case comes with funding….

For many young peopel EMA was a real lifeline from relative poverty to educational opportunity. For others, it was a ‘doss’ – the chance to not have to go out to work and have an extra 2 years at school not doing very much at all. For yet others, who lacked the wherewithal to find and impress a would-be employer, it was perhaps the only alternative to the dole.

As a part-time secondary school teacher, I saw the quality of 6th Form students plummet – in both attitude and aptitude –as the take-up of EMA increased. My classes now divided broadly into 3 groups:-

  1. Bright, highly capable students who wanted to be successful
  2. Fairly clever but uninterested students who would deal with their boredom by being disruptive – sometimes they would truant and then try to persuade the class teachers to sign their EMA forms to say they had attended!
  3. Fairly limited students who could be persuaded to work hard sometimes but who were too easily distracted by the second group

It was frustrating to find the opportunities of the bright and committed students reduced by the disruptive behaviour of the uninterested students. It was heartbreaking to see the limited students struggling with material beyond them and interesting to see how many teachers would find ways to cheat – particularly on coursework – in the interests of their students.

There has been for some years now a growing emphasis on vocational education – usually (but not always) targeted at the more academically-limited students and usually in the form of National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) or some variation thereof. However, there are serious doubts about the ‘economic value’ of NVQs. Alison Wolf of think tank Policy Exchange said in January this year: “Low-level vocational qualifications, notably NVQs, have, on average, absolutely no significant economic value to their holders. This is especially true if they were gained on a Government-financed scheme. These are also the qualifications which will be offered to most of the 16 and 17-year-olds forcibly obliged, under current proposals, to continue education and training.”

While much of the Cameron-Willets proposal seems merely to reflect well-advanced Government plans, David Willets does seem to favour a more hands-on form of vocational training – apprenticeships of some kind? – provided through means other than schools and colleges. He is of the view that many NEETS have already dropped out of school and do not want to study for anything remotely involving any form of exam.

The detail of the Cameron-Willets proposal is yet to come – but, going by the sketchy interviews and discussions so far, it might just be that, on this occasion, the Tories’ thinking is actually closer to the values of the people they are concerned with than is the Labour Government.

We don’t need no education!
The words of the Pink Floyd classic, ‘Another Brick in the Wall’, really do ring true for a small but significant minority of youngsters – the NEETs?

At least they don’t want the education being offered by the ‘system’. It’s one of the biggest fallacies in contemporary policy-making to think that truants are missing out on their education. Not true! They’re learning how to take drugs, have sex, steal from shops, find their position in gang hierarchies, etc, etc – and just generally survive, often on dangerous estates that really are ‘concrete jungles’. They’re getting an education alright – but not the one most of society wants them to have!

School often doesn’t work for these children because they enter it with their parents’ values – infected with their parents’ memes. Their parents don’t value education as such – so it’s no surprise they don’t. Failure to conform – in everything from dress to not doing homework to thumping that really annoying kid on the next desk (just like Dad told you to!) – results in punishment and the reinforcing of the schema that school isn’t where you want to be. Academic failure usually follows behavioural difficulties and then the only way then to gain the esteem of others for the emerging RED vMEME is via what Nicholas Emler (1984) calls negative reputation….How many times can you cause the teacher to stop the lesson? How many detentions can you rack up? How many times can you get dragged off to be shouted at by the headteacher. And, if you feel like a break, really push it and get yourself excluded for a day or two! What a hero you are to your fellow ‘bad lads’!

As Robert Dilts (1990) shows clearly with his Neurological Levels model, it is Identity and Values & Beliefs which drive Behaviour. You can try to pump all the Skills & Knowledge possible into them but it’s unlikely to be taken on board if it doesn’t fit with what’s really important – and it certainly won’t change Behaviour.

If either Ed Balls or David Willets really wants to deal with the ‘NEETs problem’, then, as 4Q/8L shows, they have to find a way of working with the values not just of individuals (Upper Left) but the entire culture (Lower Left) and social institutions (Lower Right) of the areas these children live in.

Willets at least recognises, however indirectly, that values are involved in tackling this issue. But a £100M and some social enterprise-run vocational schemes are only a drop in the ocean of what’s needed.

A MeshWORK Approach
What is required is a large-scale fully-coordinated/joined-up MeshWORK programme which works with the young people, the schools, the parents, the youth workers, local employers, the local NHS, etc, etc, etc, to examine and treat the health of each vMEME at both cultural and individual levels.

There are encouraging signs that the politicians are beginning to link things up. David Cameron has said the Conservatives will support the Government’s newly-announced welfare-to-work reforms. These will pressurise some of the NEETS into going on training schemes as a precursor to work. For some, the welfare reforms will actually bring them to a point of contemplating their own survival – and there’s no vMEME more powerful in motivating action than BEIGE! (After all, why else should NEETS go on Willets’ vocational training?) A few weeks back Gordon Brown announced financial incentives for poor parents who enrolled their children in schemes to improve their development.

But it all needs drawing together into a cohesive superordinate MeshWORK package that can, in a planned way, address a multiplicity of issues on several different levels at the same time. A whole-scale systemic solution, if you will.

A part of that MeshWORK package needs to take a Structural Functionalist (Lower Right) view of what type of work is and could be possible and what we want schools to do in relation to preparation for work. British industry once employed huge numbers of low ability, poorly-skilled manual labourers – the kind of work many young people who are now NEETs would have gone into when they left school at 14. While the work was sometimes dangerous and often poorly paid, it at least gave the men purpose and some kind of living, with the status of ‘wage-earner’ – a key to healthy PURPLE in a Western lower working class culture. Now those kinds of jobs are in short supply and we are told we need highly-skilled, flexible workers capable of at least semi-autonomous thinking ahead. In other words, we’re demanding the level of ORANGE in complexity of thinking for many ‘ordinary’ workers.

Only today’s ‘ordinary’ is very different from the ‘ordinary’ of 40 years ago. For many grandchildren of miners, seamen, farm labourers, conveyer belt workers, etc, it is just too far a jump in values without substantial assistance.

Brown and Balls are taking steps in the right direction. Cameron and Willets, the detail depending, may have even better steps to take. And, for these steps, the politicians should be acknowledged. But it’s still some considerable way from providing the systemic solutions that will really make the difference.

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