NEETs: Prevention is better than cure


What is the best way to support students who, for none of the obvious reasons, seem to be switching off from school? Sarah Fleming shares some promising findings from on-going research.

‘Prevention is better than cure” is one of those pieces of received wisdom that many people have trouble translating into everyday life or work. Making an upfront commitment to nip a potential problem in the bud does, after all, require a certain amount of faith (in the intervention) and vision (of the future benefit), not to mention investment – of time, money and resources.

In the school context, prevention is particularly important when dealing with students who are at risk of disengaging, but do not face significant or complex barriers to learning. 

NFER evidence shows that this group makes up almost two-thirds of those who go on to become NEET (not in education, employment or training) after leaving compulsory education. These students often fall through the cracks because they do not present obvious home or school-related difficulties.

And the lack of solid evidence about the benefits of specific preventative programmes means schools can be understandably reluctant to redirect resources from more immediate areas of need.

Plugging the gap

There is some light at the end of this tunnel in the shape of emerging evidence from an NFER study, which we first reported on in SecEd in February (Seeking a NEET solution, SecEd 373, February 27. 2014).

To recap: a team of NFER researchers are following a group of secondary schools across England who are already running programmes to prevent their key stage 4 students from disengaging from learning. 

The ultimate aim is to identify practice that appears to be working and carry out further analysis to provide robust evidence that it does work, thereby giving other schools an evidence base to inform their own strategies. 

As we go along, our researchers are capturing and sharing the learning from what seems to be working so far, providing best-practice examples that can be replicated. The support strategies vary greatly across schools. One school is providing academic mentoring, another extended work experience, another a programme to support positive behaviour change (see section below, A different approach), while students in other schools work towards alternative qualifications that motivate them more.

Key to all the support strategies is identifying the right young people who would benefit, and the reasons why they are at risk (for which NFER has developed a free tool, Reading the Signs – see further information). While it is still early days, students are already reporting benefits from the support they are receiving. 

Student A’s story

Student A attends Rushden Academy, part of a consortium of schools in East Northamptonshire running a programme to help students remain engaged at school. It includes a range of activities including academic mentoring, targeted careers advice and tailored work experience.

Staff identified this very capable student for the programme because they felt she was not reaching her full potential. She was persistently truanting, walking off site and displaying problematic behaviour.

A Common Assessment Framework was put into place for a number of issues and, at one point, the school was considering moving her from mainstream education to work within its Inclusive Learning Unit.

Student A responded well to the mentoring process and genuinely wanted to improve her grades and get back on track. She received intensive mentoring support under the raising the participation age project, built a good relationship with her mentor, and was listened to regarding what would work well for her in lessons and why.

The mentor worked with all subject teachers to ensure Student A was on task and, with intensive (almost daily) support, she began to return to lessons and rekindled her love for learning. 

Since that time, Student A has successfully attained a grade C in GCSE maths. She is expecting to achieve at least five A* to C GCSEs including English. However she is struggling still in some subjects, such as French and science, possibly because she missed so much earlier in year 10.

Student A is now happy, focused and on-task, and has decided to stay on at 6th form to study four A levels. She is an accomplished musician and keen historian – achieving one mark off an A grade in a recent assessment. She has also signed up for her Duke of Edinburgh Bronze as part of the mentoring process and is attending an after-school cookery skills workshop alongside seven other students on the raising of the participation age project. In her spare time she volunteers for a church group and does some one-to-one work with a young girl with cerebral palsy.

This student has really turned her life around, the mentoring took place at the right time for positive intervention strategies to be put into place.

She explained: “The mentoring has really helped me and has had a positive impact on my educational needs.

“It has been fun getting involved in new projects – for example, last summer I helped out with a transition summer school where I delivered a drama workshop with year 6s. This really helped me become more confident and it was a great compliment when my mentor asked me to help her run this project.

“I discovered I was really good at working with younger children who had behavioural problems – I think it may be because I’ve been through similar experiences myself.”

Common threads

Despite the range of different approaches, we are starting to see common threads among these schemes that seem to be contributing to their success. These include:

  • Flexibility within programmes ensuring that, as much as is practical, they can be tailored to the needs and interests of the individual young person.

  • Developing open and supportive relationships between staff and students. This is particularly relevant for one-to-one support and mentoring.

  • Opening up the young people’s horizons on future possibilities, providing them with the knowledge to feel confident in making decisions for their future.

  • Ensuring that students do not feel labelled as “problem kids” because of receiving additional support.

  • Recognising the extra value an external partner brings to schools including expertise, support and training.

Crucially, we have seen how important it is that these preventative programmes have buy-in from all those involved, from senior leaders within schools and other members of staff, to students and parents (who need to understand why their child would benefit from the additional support). Regular communication is vital for this to happen.

New year, new focus

As the new year ushers in the final phase of this research, we aim to identify which of these programmes are most effective at catching this group of potential NEETs before they disengage – if possible measuring impact with a randomised controlled trial. It might be, though, that the study concludes it is more appropriate to focus on key factors common to successful interventions and that, working with school partners, we can develop and roll-out a support programme combining these elements which can, in turn, be independently evaluated.

This would provide robust evidence – perhaps the “proof” that schools need – that their faith, vision and investment really can prevent some of their students from joining the thousands whose prospects are defined by that NEET label.

A different approach

Kings Lynn Academy has implemented the “Do Something Different” online programme, which was initially developed by psychologists at the University of Hertfordshire. There are a number of variants of the programme; the students do the “Teen” version which is aligned with the academy’s aim of improving health and wellbeing (including self-esteem, mood and anxiety), and increasing attainment. 

The programme includes: 

  • An initial assessment of the young person’s behavioural habits. This informs the selection of a range of “Do” tasks suited to the young person.

  • Three “Do” tasks are sent by email or text to the participant about three times a week for six weeks.

  • Students develop strategies to help them succeed in the future.

What are “Do” tasks? “Do” tasks are suggested simple actions sent to the students to try for one day (e.g. sitting in a different chair in class or trying not to complain for a day). “Do” tasks help students explore their behaviour, encourage them to try things outside their “comfort zone”, and offer them tools to deal with situations in a more positive way.

  • Sarah Fleming is NFER’s media executive and communications lead for the foundation’s work on education to employment.

Further information and resources
  • NEET Prevention: Keeping students engaged at key stage 4: Top tips for senior leaders – a free guide for senior leaders offering advice on developing a support programme for students in a systematic and structured way:
  • NEET Prevention: Keeping students engaged at key stage 4: Second case study report – the full research report providing detailed updates on each of the 10 schools involved in the project’s first year:
  • Reading the Signs: A discussion aid for identifying the reasons why young people may disengage – NFER’s discussion aid of indicators to understand the reasons behind students’ behaviour:


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