• There are 528,000 of them in Australia.
  • There are over 1,000,000 of them in the UK!
  • There are 93,000 in New Zealand!
  • Just over 11,000,000 are in the US.
  • And almost 1,000,000 are in Canada!

What are they? They are young people who are Not in Employment, Education or Training and the proportions of students entering this group annually is remarkably static across the major English-speaking education systems (see above) of the world. The twin statistic is that of the numbers disengaging from school.

There simply has to be a response to these issues. They cannot be allowed to continue as the demographic profile sees a future in which fewer people are earning and increased numbers will need supporting through the health and welfare systems such as they might be in the future.

We might once have said that we need to do something about this because it is not good for those young people to be in that situation. Now we must conclude that we need to do something about it because it is simply not good for us.

The international evidence is clear – there are few effective programmes that can counter disengagement. It simply seems to keep on happening. Of course, not all NEETs have dropped out of school, there is a stream of NEETs who have completed school but with such minimal success they have few options. Waiting until you leave school, to find out of you are on-track to a successful pathway into the future doesn’t work. Pathways don’t emerge to start at those late points, instead they emerge throughout schooling and certainly from an early point in secondary schooling. This is a little softer when students head towards the general university degrees – B.A., B.Sc. etc. – but there is also a clear drift towards a more vocationally focused qualification for many university students who change course towards those more vocational qualifications.

Generally the pathways are simply not there. We have brought into the view that a comprehensive education is the point of schooling. But that ignores two factors – the comprehensive school has been predicated on the demands of the pathway to a conventional university programme and, secondly, there has never been a time when that was a pathway appropriate for all students. In the old days, and not that old actually, students had choice in the programmes offered – technical subjects, vocational subjects and the ability to start work at age 15 were all there.

Quite rightly there were questions asked about the wisdom of tracking students, about narrowing their choices, and about whether 15 years was too early to enter the world of work and so on. But the solutions chosen, i.e. strip the schools of their vocational subjects (especially the trades) and increase the school leaving age, were simply not prudent.

What has never been understood was that the multiple pathways philosophy that other education systems have built into their senior secondary schools were managed with flexibility. Students can shift across those different pathways either to take a subject in another one or to shift across completely.

What a pity that we didn’t take note of practice in countries other than the somewhat rigidly conservative English-Speaking Club of Five. We would have seen the examples of differentiated secondary schools in Germany, the Netherlands, France and Japan for instance. We would have perhaps considered the Scandinavian patterns of general ability schools to age 16 then differentiated schools (Finland) or different tracks in the same school (Sweden). In Belgium students (from age 14) can choose different kinds of schools – general, technical, artistic and vocational.

Instead the Club of Five persisted with the comprehensive secondary school and delayed the vocational focus until post-secondary. With it grew the statistics of disengagement and the phenomenon of the NEETs.

New Zealand has achieved some remarkable developments in the past 20 years – a credit-based qualifications framework, changing legislation to allow the MIT Tertiary High School to set the pattern for an earlier and different engagement with applied learning, and the development of Trades Academies and Dual Pathways programmes.

An unsung hero of these developments is the provision of Youth Guarantee places in tertiary institutions that attacks the monopoly that school system had on free education. Those who wished to leave school at the age of 16 years, the point at which the law said they could, then faced tuition fees of something like $4,500 a year. Meanwhile, others could stay at school and fail or not for free until they were 19 years.

Not only was this situation unfair, we were the only country in the OECD that had such discrimination and it ignored the increasing body of evidence that early (or perhaps earlier) access to applied education was beneficial not only for those headed towards the hands-on occupations that you do standing up and sometimes in the rain but also those jobs that everyone else does!

The flexibility of the NZ Qualifications Framework is a treasure which allows for multilevel assessment, the bringing together of achievement from different programmes, different providers, different institutions (such as secondary school and ITPs) and to provide a comprehensive picture of what young (and not so young) learners can do. As the late Fred Dagg, who achieved excellence in dog handling and public speaking and an achieved in sartorial elegance would have said: “We don’t know how lucky we are!”

Now, back to the NEETs. The secret to success for this group is to respect their maturity (they are not simply failed school kids), to provide programmes that lead to employment and to make it happen quickly. All power to the bow of those providers who have made attempts to address this issue.

Dr Stuart Middleton is Specialist Advisor to the CEO of Manukau Institute of Technology.

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