Engaging with students at risk of becoming NEET

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: iStock

How can schools inspire key stage 4 students who can’t see the value of going to school or getting good grades – and who risk becoming NEET? Dr Susie Bamford outlines some successful strategies

In England today we have a group of young people who are not able to see the value of going to school or getting good grades. These youngsters are NEET (not in education, employment, or training).

Latest figures show that the proportion of 16 to 24-year-old young people in England who are NEET was 11.6 per cent (actual number 690,000) as of December 2015.

But the majority of these young people are not facing complex barriers to learning such as teenage pregnancy or having social care involvement – they’ve simply become disengaged. Given appropriate support at the right stage these youngsters could go on to achieve the grades they need, find a job or training that they enjoy, and make a contribution to society. But without this, they could slip through the net to become NEET and remain NEET into later adulthood.

So what can be done to re-engage these young people? To inspire them and to help them see the importance of getting a good education? NFER has been trying to find out.

Assessing different support programmes

The NFER has been running a longitudinal study to investigate the impact of five different support programmes aimed at re-engaging such students at key stage 4. We have tracked 41 students involved in these programmes across two years from the beginning of year 10 to the end of year 11.

We have undertaken in-depth interviews with the programme leads, carried out focus groups with the students, conducted interviews with partner organisations (programme deliverers or work experience providers), and examined the students’ attendance and attainment data.

Each student completed one of the programmes described below, all of which were delivered in England and all incurred a financial cost.

Employer or business-focused support

  • Extended employer work experience: over the two years students attended work experience placements for one to three days per week and during the remaining days in school they focused on key subjects such as mathematics, English, science, work skills and vocational qualifications.
  • Social enterprise qualification: students worked towards a qualification over the course of one or two years by working in small groups to identify a local issue and then set up a social enterprise to generate money to help solve or improve the identified issue.

Pastoral or academic-focused support

  • City Year: students were mentored by graduate volunteer mentors on a one-to-one basis over the two years. The mentors supported the students in lessons and outside of class time by discussing the learners’ personal targets and support needs.
  • Do Something Different: students completed a six-week behavioural intervention where they were encouraged to try new behaviours through an individually tailored online support programme. The students met in a weekly group session to discuss their progress and provide each other with support.

Combined approaches

  • Raising the Participation Age: this project ran over two years and combined careers guidance, mentoring, team enterprise activities in small groups, and work experience opportunities to provide students with well-rounded support.

Impact of the support programmes

We have now completed our project and our final report is free to download. Overall, the students’ engagement in learning had improved compared to the beginning of year 10 and the majority were still engaged in learning in the autumn following their GCSEs.

The young people’s attitudes to school improved over time too and in the majority of cases project leads reported that key stage 4 attainment was better than expected. Students had developed skills that helped them to remain in learning and prepare them for the world of work. Most notably, seeing the relevance of their school work to the world of work, improved attendance, enhanced confidence and communication skills, and improved teamwork.

Of course, we cannot be sure that these positive changes are solely due to the support programmes as we were not running a randomised controlled trial and we cannot know what might have happened without these programmes.

However, interviews with the programme leads revealed that there was an overwhelming belief that the students would not have done as well as they did without the additional support and this opinion was reflected by many of the students themselves. For example, one student said the programme “helped me realise school is key and education is a thing that will help you move forward”.

The key elements

While the programmes have their differences we identified some common elements that the leaders believed contributed to the success of the interventions.

Mentoring: This was key in all the programmes. In some cases it was an overt part of the support with carved out mentoring time. In other cases the leads described “mentoring by stealth”, the act of providing support and advice within the group sessions or simply being available for students when they needed it.

A consistent, dedicated project lead: What was clear was the positive effect on young people’s attitudes of the programme leads. Linked to the mentoring aspect, all leads provided a consistent and supportive point of contact for the young people, whom they could trust and turn to for advice – a port in the storm. It is worth noting that the programme leads were all going “above and beyond” to support the students.

Group support: The group dynamics and the support the students gave each other played an important role. Students formed friendships and gained from peer support and challenge that would not have otherwise been available. They also learned to work effectively in a team which improved their behaviour and added to their employability skills.

Relevance to the world of work: Students reported that the parts of the programmes that allowed them to see the relevance of their studies to work were pivotal in helping them to re-engage. For example, using maths during work experience to plan business activities showed them that they were learning something important and relevant to later life. Once they could see relevance they were much happier to engage.

Flexibility: The programmes had an element of flexibility which allowed them to adapt to the students’ needs, to offer support during lunchtimes and after school, and to fit around students’ abilities and timetables.

Going forward

The NFER has produced a guide on how to recognise those young people most in need of help, identified key features of successful support programmes, and compiled top tips for running a programme in your school. We have seen that with the right support, students at risk of becoming NEET can be re-engaged, re-inspired and go on to have bright futures.

Top tips for schools

If you want to run a programme like the ones described above to re-engage your students here are our tips for success:

  • Identify the youngsters: we have produced a free checklist of indicators, based on evidence, to help schools identify young people at risk of disengaging, profile the individual characteristics of the young person, and to inform the selection of the right support (see further information).
  • Choose or develop a programme that has the key elements: mentoring, group support, relevance to work, and flexibility. Appoint a dedicated programme lead. Make sure the programme lead has adequate support and time to run the programme.
  • Monitor your intervention: where possible keep track of your students’ behaviour, attendance and (predicted) grades. Comparing these before, during and after the intervention can help to identify what is working.
  • Dr Susie Bamford is a quantitative researcher and statistician in the NFER’s Centre for Evaluation and Consultancy.

Further information

  • NEET Prevention: Keeping students engaged at key stage 4 (final case study report), McCrone & Bamford, NFER, April 2016: www.nfer.ac.uk/IMP4
  • Reading the Signs: A discussion aid for identifying the reasons why young people may disengage: www.nfer.ac.uk/IND2
  • NEET Prevention: Top tips for senior leaders: www.nfer.ac.uk/IMP3


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