A Neet solution

Increasing numbers of teenagers stumble at the transition from school to work. There is an answer

The day I met Jackie on the Carnel wing of Darlington's £37m Education Village, she had just revealed she had not slept at her mother's house for the past three months, preferring to "sofa surf" with friends. One of Jackie's half-sisters is in her class: they were born a month apart. A barely younger half-brother studies across the hall. That night Jackie was due to meet the father she shares with these half-siblings for the second time in her life: she is 15.

Jackie is not out of the ordinary. In the class next door I met a young boy - perhaps 14 - with deep scabs on his hands acquired while fighting on the streets at nights and weekends in bare-knuckle bouts that attract large crowds who bet on the outcome.

Normally Jackie and her mates would be about to join the ranks of the Neets: young people not in education, employment or training. The scale of the Neet problem is the most telling indicator of the social challenges our education system faces and the inability of conventional schooling to respond. About one in ten children leaving school in Manchester is a Neet; in Leeds it's 4,000 children a year. Children who are Neets have lower incomes, poorer life chances, higher risks of teenage pregnancy and imprisonment. It is an indictment of our education system that it produces Neets in such numbers.

It is not as if the innovations required to address the problem were rocket science. The staff on Carnel seem to have some answers. The 60 children there were the most disruptive in the school, many heading for exclusion. Now they are in school and enthusiastic about learning.

The Carnel recipe is simple: children learn when they have relationships which make them feel cared for; which give them recognition for who they are, where they come from and what they have achieved; and which motivate them to learn. In addition, they are participants in their own education, in shaping what they learn and how they learn it and in setting their own targets and reviewing their own performance.

Carnel has a better-than-normal teacher-pupil ratio, but it is not just a question of numbers and money. The atmosphere is conversational but focused. Many of the most effective staff are teaching assistants and non-qualified teachers who know how to connect with kids. The teaching skill most needed for Neets is the ability to motivate. Carnel feels like a small school, though it is part of a large institution. That is why Jackie - bright, engaging, wry - is about to get 13 GCSEs.

Over the past few months, I have visited a clutch of innovative schools and local authorities working with the Innovation Unit (created by the then Department for Education and Skills) to see how they tackle social problems. It has become clear to me that we need to redesign learning - at school, in families and the community - around relationships. What might that mean so far as Neets are concerned?

First, it means providing families at risk of social exclusion with more intensive, tailored, preventative support. About 2 per cent, or 140,000 families, in the UK are officially judged to be "at risk of social exclusion". The government needs to work with local authorities to create a new generation of integrated family support services, in which keyworkers would be attached to families to help them create their own support plans using a budget dedicated to them.

Second, we should equip more children to cope better with the tough hands they have been dealt. Non-cognitive skills are as important as technical skills in determining employability and earnings. The ability to form relationships is increasingly needed in order to work well. Several local authorities say they estimate that 30 to 40 per cent of the children they deal with need significant support with the social and emotional aspects of their lives. Hertfordshire is leading the way with emotional resilience programmes for all children in year seven.

Third, it is easier for children to build relationships which support learning within schools that feel smaller. The Leigh Technology Academy in Dartford, Kent, has been broken down into four smaller schools, each in a separate block with its own principal and staff. Studio Schools, being created by the Young Foundation, based on a field trial with the Innovation Unit at Barnfield in Luton, will teach the National Curriculum to 300 students through interdisciplinary enterprise projects and vocational learning.

The government should announce the end of the monolithic secondary school. All children should be taught in schools (or schools within schools) with no more than 500 pupils, where they can form sustainable relationships with teachers, support staff and peers.

Fourth, the scale and intractability of the Neet problem demands more innovative and radical responses. The 2007 Children and Young People's Plan allocated £31.5m to re-engage 16-year- olds not in learning. The Education Maintenance Allowance, introduced in 2004, allows 16- to 18-year-olds £30 a week to encourage them to stay in learning.

Children clearly at risk of becoming Neets should be offered, for years nine, ten and 11, individual budgets and advisers so that they can commission their own programmes, in and outside school, designed to get them qualifications leading to training, education or employment.

As far as young people like Jackie are concerned, it is clear: those with the greatest needs, most poorly served by the usual mass- produced public services, have the most to gain from innovation that allows more personalised approaches. These can serve social justice where traditional, top-down institutional services only compound underlying social inequalities.

Charles Leadbeater's report "What's Next? 21 Ideas for 21st-Century Learning" is published by the Innovation Unit and available for download at: http://www.innovation-unit.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 14 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, ‘I’ll leave when I finish the job’