For once, the whole of Fleet Street was united. "Meet the Neets," said the Daily Mirror, warning that the 1.1 mil-lion young people "Not in Education, Employment or Training" could turn Britain into "a nation of Vicky Pollards", referring to the incomprehensible teenager in the comedy series Little Britain. The Sunday Times helpfully explained that Neets were not "a hair infestation", but a group of young people living "on the margins of society", while the Daily Mail profiled a young woman called Charmaine Pendlebury - "the perfect example of a Neet", who "left school without a single qualification, became pregnant at 16 and receives £7,600 a year in state benefit".
It was against this backdrop that the latest in a series of regional discussions organised by the New Statesman and Fellows' Associates on the skills agenda took place in Bristol. The 12 participants, chaired by the broadcaster Jenni Murray, gathered at the city's breathtaking £97m science museum to address the dilemma of improving skills in a highly complex region, which ranges from sophisticated urban centres such as Bristol and Swindon through to rural communities and sleepy seaside towns.
But first, there was the pressing question of the Neets to deal with. Ivan Lewis, the minister for skills, pointed out that this group was a "big issue" in every community and that it needed help. "We need to create a far more demand-led system," he said, "where we reorganise the education and training system to be far more focused on the needs of the individual customer. If we don't, young people will be turned off education and will become part of this dreadful term, the Neet group."
Anna Rossetti, who has worked in adult literacy provision for 30 years and is now director of the Key Skills Support Programme, argued that these youngsters "don't want to do nothing". They have often been put off education and training in the past because it seemed dull and irrelevant. "Offering vocational, practical opportunities from the age of 14 will make a real difference," she said.
All the round-table participants were keen to address the main problem of how to motivate both the unemployed and the employed to improve their skills and realise their potential. Why, for a start, do so many young people drop out of education altogether by the age of 17? And why are there so many adults who lack basic skills in literacy, language and numeracy - not to mention the wider skills and qualifications needed to help the UK compete in an increasingly cut-throat global economy?
Paul May, director of the Learning and Skills Council, West of England, kicked off the debate by highlighting the conundrum that exists. Bristol was "booming", he said - its GDP per head of population is second only to London's - and yet GCSE results in the city are 20 per cent below the national average. "Perhaps even worse, one in ten 16-year-olds in Bristol has no qualifications at all," he also said. "There's a direct link between areas of deprivation and areas of poor educational performance, so we must work more closely with neighbourhood renewal."
According to Sarah Morris, assistant director of CBI South-West, a third of companies in the region believed that the lack of basic and higher-level skills was having "a serious impact on business". Meanwhile, John Tempest, south-west director of Skills for Life, reminded other participants that the need for basic skills training did not apply solely to "the disengaged and the poorly behaved". Among 30 per cent of graduates, he said, literacy was below the GCSE pass level.
The publication of the government's latest skills white paper was fresh in all the speakers' minds - and in particular the emphasis on more workplace-based training and the need for employers to be more involved in designing courses. Rossetti said that even though research showed that employers who invest in training retain staff, the message still hadn't got through to small- and medium-sized employers. "It's about money, isn't it?" she suggested. "Employers say, 'I can't afford to release people for training,' and 'If they're trained, other people will poach them'."
Christine Green, a lifelong learning project worker for the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, said that in her experience the retail industry was the hardest nut to crack - largely because the priorities are to "serve the customer, get the product on the shelf and the money through the till". Green is currently running a Learning for Life pilot scheme in 16 branches of Sainsbury's across the south-west, encouraging employees to develop IT, literacy and numeracy skills. "So, I work on the till at Sainsbury's," Murray quizzed her. "I've got two kids and a husband and I'm expected to do the cooking. How do you persuade me that I need to learn to use a computer?" Green had the perfect example at her fingertips - a Plymouth grandmother who had been "frightened of technology" but had bravely signed up for an IT taster course. "The provider comes into her workplace, so she's in a comfortable environment, learning with colleagues who don't know any more than she does," Green explained. "That woman has now signed up to do the National Test in literacy, so she's learning how to upskill at the same time."
But Nancy Whyte, performance manager at Training for Tomorrow, a local training company, cautioned that many people did not make use of what they had learned. "If they don't go directly into a job where they can use their new skills and keep their self-esteem going, then they end up coming back two or three years later. We see that all the time," she said.
Both Ian Mynett of the Brunel Training Group - which provides apprenticeships and work-based training services - and Lewis stressed that it was vital to approach adults who might benefit from training courses in the right way. "Obviously the way to do it is not to say, 'Put your hand up if you can't read or write'," said Lewis. "With people at work, it's about saying, 'There are opportunities for career development, promotion, progression and better earnings.' For people out of work, it's about getting across the idea of employability - securing a job and holding it down. Young people are important, but you also need to influence adults who, if they have no qualifications and a negative educational experience, are almost certain to pass on those attitudes to their own children and grandchildren. That's when we get intergenerational underperformance."
Morris was keen to set the issue in a business context and to highlight skills initiatives launched by local employers. These ranged from Airbus, which had opened its training facilities to smaller companies, through to the "clusters" of businesses in disparate sectors which saved costs by sharing training. "We are now in a fiercely competitive global economy and a large number of low-skilled jobs have already been lost to emerging economies," she said. "Those economies are very quickly upskilling their labour force and competing with us now for the higher-skilled jobs as well." But she insisted that, although the CBI strongly supported the new national employer training programme, the government should not take a "one-size-fits-all straitjacket type of approach". Flexibility was vital, she said. "It is, after all, the employers and employees who know what type of training is appropriate and when it's appropriate."
Lewis accepted there was clearly work to be done on all fronts, but that the emphasis on employers was crucial. "If we're going to meet the skills challenge of competing with India and China over the next 15 to 20 years, we can't just wait for the flow of young people to come out of a better compulsory education system, bearing better skills into the world of work," he said. "We have to do something about the people who are already in the workforce, which is why there's a hard-edged business case for employers to recognise the importance of training."
Jenni Murray (Chair) - Broadcaster
Christine Green - Lifelong learning project worker, Usdaw
Helen Kaczmarek - National project manager, Asset Skills, Sector Skills Council
Ivan Lewis - Minister for skills and vocational education, DfES
Paul May - Executive director, Learning and Skills Council, West of England
Sarah Morris - Assistant director, CBI South-West
Ian Mynett - Chief executive, Brunel Training Group plc
Anna Rossetti - Director, Key Skills Support Programme, Learners First
John Tempest - Regional director, South-West Skills for Life Strategy Unit, DfES
Les Turnbull - Manager, Entry 2 Employment Department, Gordano Training
Fiona Wells - Development & training officer, Workplace Basic Skills Network
Nancy Whyte - Performance manager, Training for Tomorrow