Post-16 options are at the heart of tackling youth unemployment

The rapidly growing NEET group needs more stable and accessible qualification landscape, says Phoebe Arslanagić-Wakefield

The rapidly growing NEET group needs more stable and accessible qualification landscape, says Phoebe Arslanagić-Wakefield

17 Oct 2023, 5:00

More than 790,000 young people in England are currently not in employment, education, or training (NEET). This represents a 23 per cent rise over the past two years.

These figures matter. Time spent neither learning nor earning can permanently dent a young person’s life chances. And there are also implications for the economy. New analysis shows that significantly reducing the number of unemployed young people could generate £69 billion in GDP. At a time when the UK’s prosperity is on shaky ground, this is a problem we can no longer afford to ignore.

Despite the best efforts of many people and organisations, the proportion of young people who are NEET has remained stubbornly high for the past two decades. This is despite evidence that shows us factors that indicate whether someone is likely to become NEET are often apparent from an early stage. As these young people finish key stage 4 at the age of 16, they enter a time of acute risk.

On the face of it, there’s a plethora of post-16 options for these young people to choose from: A Levels, apprenticeships, BTECs, T Levels, and T Level transition years. But reforms from the removal of many BTECs to incoming changes that will be wrought by the shift to the recently announced Advanced British Standard also mean young people face a shifting and confusing qualification landscape. And even this range of options can be insufficient for young people with the highest chance of falling through the cracks.

Worryingly, the range of options available to young people also seems to be narrowing. While apprenticeships are an option for post-16 training, many employers and providers instead create opportunities more appropriate for older applicants and existing workers rather than young people looking to get their start in the labour market. Since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, level 2 and 3 apprenticeships – those typically taken by young people leaving school with lower levels of qualifications – have declined. This represents a loss of opportunity for many.

Young people face a shifting and confusing qualification landscape

But there are things government can do to reverse this damaging trend. The new Young Person’s Guarantee (YPG) launched by the Youth Employment Group calls on policymakers to strengthen the range of level 2 and level 3 pathways by maintaining a broad range of qualification options, incentivising their employment and re-orientating the apprenticeship system to prioritise them.

Specifically, the YPG makes four specific recommendations to improve the post-16 offer:

  • To place a moratorium on cuts to vocational technical qualifications until the T level roll-out is complete
  • To adopt targets for level 2 and level 3 apprenticeship starts for under-25s to meet pre-levy levels
  • To incentivise employers to employ young people with disabilities and long-term health conditions
  • To increase flexibility of levy spending

These reforms would improve young people’s routes into employment and qualifications, and would widen skills development, reducing the number of young people who find themselves neither learning nor earning.

Measures such as these cannot succeed in isolation but must form part of a concerted attempt to help young people across their education and beyond. We know this is possible; the Young Person’s Guarantee is based on an evidence-based review of international best practice. Adopting it would commit government to supporting our young people to access employment, training or education within four months of leaving work or formal education.

Preventing a young person from becoming NEET, or helping a young person who is to find work can transform their life chances. This is particularly true of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are twice as likely as their better-off peers to fall into this category. And there are profound economic and societal benefits too.

The Young Person’s Guarantee provides a road map to economic growth that is built on consensus and overwhelmingly supported by the public. Creating and resourcing the right post-16 options is a critical component of getting this right and delivering for all our young people.

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