NEETs: Strategies for engaging pupils at risk


Engaging with young people at risk of becoming NEET is a continuing challenge for schools, drawing on lessons from the Sporteducate scheme, Lekan Ojumu offers some insights

If pupils are struggling to engage with their education and are at a high risk of joining the 900,000-plus 16 to 24-year-olds in the UK who are currently NEET (not in education, employment or training), what tactics can be employed to grab their attention, change their attitudes and raise their aspirations for the future?

It is a challenge that nearly every teacher will be able to relate to and one that lies at the heart of Sporteducate. What’s different about the programme is that community sport groups deliver the supplementary educational activities, rather than the schools themselves. 

So for teachers looking for inspiration for their school’s Pupil Premium strategy or supplementary education activities, what lessons can they take away from our work about engaging young people at risk?

The carrot and the stick

Incentivise participation in supplementary educational activities with a powerful reward. It’s a simple “carrot and stick” methodology, but is still one of the most effective methods of getting and – most importantly –keeping young people engaged.

Sporteducate combines sport with educational activities such as homework clubs, supplementary lessons and personal mentoring, but the principle could equally be applied to art, music or drama.

Having a reward powerful enough to illicit a change in behaviour and attitudes is the key. It works because it drives a model of engagement based on self-referral. The young people that attend Sporteducate are under no obligation to be there, they can leave any time they want. This is important as it helps them to take responsibility for their actions, breaks down barriers to authority and gives them a sense of ownership over their learning. 

As Tom Bateman, year 7 head of history at Archbishop Lanfranc Academy in Croydon and Football Beyond Borders (FBB) coach, explains, this can lead to some surprising changes in behaviour: “Some of the young people that come to our Homework Club don’t even turn up to their own detentions, which are meant to be compulsory, so for them to turn up here voluntarily is a big win to start with.”

As part of their Sporteducate programme, FBB combines a weekly homework club with after-school football sessions as the hook to provide targeted support to a group of underperforming pupils at Archbishop Lanfranc. 

Creating order from chaos

Obviously with the carrot, needs to come the proverbial stick – in this case discipline. While attendance at our programmes is 100 per cent voluntarily, access to the sporting activities is wholly dependent on attending the supplementary education sessions, doing the work and following the rules.

Esmond Francis from Martial Way Training in Tottenham explained: “Young people need boundaries as a way of developing good habits. We teach that rules aren’t just about controlling people but more about creating order from chaos.”

Discipline is something that is strongly reinforced at Track Academy in London, as founder and former teacher Connie Henry explained: “Yes, we will reward them, but there are also some strict criteria. You have to be disciplined. You have to have manners. You have to perform at school.

“It’s a fallacy that young people don’t like the discipline, the focus and organisation. What track and field gives them is organised fun, organised activities and organised opportunities to express themselves. It’s a huge motivation for them.”

Consistency, consistency, consistency

Aside from sport, the reason why community clubs are so effective at engaging and changing the behaviour of young people is the strength of their relationships. As Mr Bateman at FBB puts it: “Football alone doesn’t change anything, it’s the relationship with us.”

Trust, or more specifically the lack of it, can be a major stumbling point when trying to re-engage young people in extra-curricular activities. It is something that can only be fostered through regular contact, reinforcement and consistent support.

Seeing the same faces in the classroom teaching, then out on the pitch coaching, can pay huge dividends in helping young people to overcome their barriers to authority. A lack of consistent contact can easily see young people revert back to negative behaviour patterns.

“They’ve spent most of their years not trusting someone, having adult figures let them down,” warned Ms Henry, so proving that you have their best interests at heart by investing your time and energy on a consistent basis goes a long way to creating mutual trust and respect.

Mr Bateman agrees: “If they come to our Homework Club every Friday and then see me every day around school saying ‘Hi, how are you?’ eventually that will begin to break down barriers. What a lot of these young people need are really consistent adult attachment figures because, quite often, they just don’t have them in their lives.”

Tailored activities for underlying problems 

Once you have established that hook and built those trusted relationships, you can then begin to unpick some of the underlying reasons for disengagement in the classroom. Of course, these reasons are highly complex and personal, yet tend to manifest themselves in common behaviours which can be tackled through tailored activities.

For example, Martial Way Training provides martial arts in conjunction with classroom sessions to develop self-control. Mr Francis explained: “We emphasise self-awareness and highlight how everything an individual does in life is ultimately self-reflection because everything originates in the mind.”

Ms Henry recognises that the “young people that come to Track Academy are smart, they’re witty, have the ability to learn and succeed”. She continued: “They have all these basic qualities, but by far the biggest problem is communication. They have such a poor ability to communicate – their problems, their wants, their wishes. They have difficulties in school saying ‘I don’t understand this, can you help me?’ – the club addresses this by running regular communication workshops.”

Clubs also realise the importance of creating an appropriate yet relaxed learning environment that offers more support to young people with disengagement and behaviour issues. They recognise the need to pay specific attention to that individual and their needs. This means limiting group sizes and offering, where possible, one-to-one support, even if this is in a group setting.

Burst their bubbles

Young people, particularly from disadvantaged areas, often live in very isolated “bubbles”, rarely leaving their trusted local boundaries or interacting with people of different social backgrounds. The obvious danger of this is that negative behaviours become entrenched and low aspirations go unchallenged. 

One way to overcome this is by introducing external figures and taking young people outside of their comfort zones. For example, as part of Sporteducate our young people regularly have the opportunity to engage with staff volunteers from Deutsche Bank, either through personal mentoring or visits to their offices in the City to take part in fun skill-building activities.

Giving young people the opportunity to talk to professionals about their jobs and the importance of education, is a great way to help them see the potential consequences of their current behaviour and raise their aspirations for the future.

FBB is one club that has seen the benefits of running excursions to reinforce the work they do in the classroom and also act as an added reward. Mr Bateman added: “They have their natural barriers up at school. You take them out of school and you see a different side to them because they have to let their barriers down. They put on such a front at school – they have certain things they have to live up to.”

  • Lekan Ojumu is Sporteducate programme manager

Further information
For more information about Sported and Deutsche Bank’s Sporteducate programme, visit

CAPTION: Back from the brink: The Track Academy (above) and the Crown and Manor Club (top) are two Sporteducate initiatives engaging students at risk of becoming NEET (Photos: Sporteducate)


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