Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

NEETs are not a post-16 matter but a pre-five one

New figures show the number of ‘NEETs’ has fallen slightly since a year ago, but is above than the 2010 target of 7.6 per cent.

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Today the latest statistics are published on the number of 16-18 year olds not in education, employment and training (‘NEET’) – the figures show just under one in ten young people are NEET – a slight improvement on the figures from this time last year, but still higher than the 2010 target of 7.6 per cent. This is a problem that has confounded policymakers in the last few years – despite a huge focus on trying to bring numbers down.

Too often, the answer is seen to be in post-16 education and jobs. But a Demos report out today argues that in order to prevent a future generation of NEETs, we need to be looking at what happens much earlier in the education system in light of the evidence that a small, but persistent, minority of children are switching off from their education much sooner than age 16. Otherwise efforts to reduce the number of NEETs post-16 are in effect trying to close the stable door after the horse has bolted.

New research published today by Demos highlights the links between what happens before children even start school, and their later life chances. It shows that over one in 10 children – 11.5 per cent – are starting school age five with behavioural issues that are impacting on their ability to concentrate, to form relationships with friends and teachers, and to get the most out of school, and that they are disproportionately from poor backgrounds. Many of these children will also have issues with speech and communication: in some deprived areas, up to half of children are starting school without the language skills they need. These are the children who will face an uphill struggle to catch their peers up during school. They are at a disadvantage even before they’ve even crossed the school gate for the first time.

The real question is: what can be done to provide extra support for these children in the crucial early years? Labour has spent the last decade building an infrastructure of early years services designed to support families and young children – spanning health visitors, Sure Start and free nursery places. The challenge for the next decade is in making sure that this infrastructure is being used in the most effective way possible to support children before they get to school.

The Conservatives claim to have the best ideas around early years support. But they want to take the second generation model of Sure Start – Children’s Centres offering services spanning early years education, parenting services and health services on the same site in every community – back to its earlier precursor, in which Sure Start was only available in the most deprived areas. This is despite the fact that this kind of targeting was not particularly effective: the most at-risk families often didn’t access the service, and many children from poor families who didn’t live in targeted areas missed out as a whole. A rolling back of Children’s Centres – a service on which many parents now rely – would be a step backwards.

What we need is an early years offer that is based on progressive universal principles: light-touch services that everyone can access, but with the most expensive, intensive services reserved for children and families who are most in need of this support.

What does this mean in practice? First, we need a way of identifying the children that are in need of extra support. At the moment, it is too often the case that a child’s extra needs won’t be identified until they get to school – or even later. That’s why we’ve called for a light-touch screening programme for all children in the early years that would assess behavioural and linguistic development – and be used to direct the children and families who really need support to services like speech and language therapy, mental health services and parenting courses.

Second, the report calls for a ‘toddler pupil premium’: per-child funding of pre-school nursery places – with more funding for children from deprived backgrounds. At the moment, the quality of nursery provision tends to be poorer in more deprived areas. Good-quality nursery provision doesn’t come cheap: it requires highly-qualified staff and low staff to child ratios. It is right that nurseries serving children with higher levels of need should get more funding.

Last, there is the conundrum that the most at-risk families are often the hardest to reach. This is why we suggest the government should trial financial incentives for at-risk parents to complete parenting skills programmes.

It is vital that future reforms to early years services build on current provision to give all children the best start possible. Otherwise, there will be a generation of children waiting in the wings to take the place of today’s NEETs.

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Sonia Sodha

is a former adviser to Ed Miliband and writes for Progress in a personal capacity

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