Christopher Arnold: Becoming NEET: Risks, rewards, and realities

Apr 10, 2014 by

Becoming NEET

An Interview with Christopher Arnold: Becoming NEET: Risks, rewards, and realities

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

  1. Christopher- you have just co-authored a book called with Tracey Baker on Becoming NEET – which describes individuals who are not in education, employment or training. What brought this about?

In the United Kingdom, in the early 2000s there was a government initiative called ‘Every Child Matters’ which incorporated five outcomes for children.  The principal psychologist suggested that each of the senior psychologists should take one outcome as a theme and develop interventions in the area.  I was one such educational psychologist and took the outcome ‘Economic well being’.  In essence this took the view that being involved in paid work was actually good for your life chances.  I also have a history of looking at new environments in education and applying psychology to improve outcomes for the most vulnerable students.  For example, I published on the use of breakfast and after school clubs and how to ensure that they didn’t replicate the kinds of experiences that children get in classrooms.

In starting on this line of enquiry, I started to make links with the local Connexions service.  At that time, this was an independent body, funded by the UK Government to provide independent advice and guidance on jobs, training and further education.  It was clear quite early on that the pupils who took most of the time of the Connexions staff were previously known to the local educational psychology service.  I was working on a book linking children’s chaotic lives to the risk of exclusion from school and considered that the same principles might apply to identify early children at risk of entering the NEET category.  I worked closely with the Connexions staff to develop a risk factor screening tool to allow for early intervention.  The project was very successful and the drop-out rates amongst the most vulnerable students dropped by a half.  I met Tracey Baker, one of the Connexions staff and we started working together.  She is now managing the European project which takes the model to four European countries. Our resulting book is called Becoming NEET: Risks, rewards, and realities. It examines the histories of employment and childhood to reveal the context of NEET. It describes how information about children’s lives can be used to develop screening tools to facilitate early intervention in schools.

  1. What are the short term and the long term risks to those individuals who are not in education, employment or training?

Not good.  We cite the following statistics:

  • 1 in 5 have no qualifications
  • 22 times more likely to be parents under 18
  • 60% more drug use
  • 20 times more likely to commit crime
  • 50% likely to have poor health
  • 10 years less life expectancy
  1. What are the consequences to the family and society?

Long term intergenerational poverty, poor health, dependence on benefits and economic inactivity.

  1. What kinds of interventions are currently in place in the United Kingdom and are they working?

There are several types.  The work that Tracey and I have been involved with has two components.  We can identify the high risk students about three years ahead.  There is then a banding applied which allows us to allocate different programmes to students in different bands.  For example the highest risk students get personal contact with the Connexions worker two years ahead. This member of staff tracks the student even if they move area.  The next band are treated as a group and steered towards any enrichment activities such as vocational courses.  The rest get the standard service.

There are also programmes to engage students who have disengaged.  These are often grant funded and specific to certain areas of the country, such as inner cities.

In Sandwell, an urban area near to Birmingham, the NEET rate is falling.  Whilst the screening is part of the programme, it is not all of it.  Many people doing many different things contribute to keeping the young people engaged.

  1. In your opinion, do some of these ‘NEET’ people have some type of undiagnosed disability or handicapping condition?

No.  In general, those with disabilities are well identified and have existing support.  The most vulnerable are those with little or no external support, in spite of having complex and often chaotic lives.

  1. Can you discuss these ‘risk factor scores’ that you describe in your book?

Each geographic area will have its own characteristics.  For example in the urban environment of Sandwell, we discovered that families without access to their own vehicle were no more at risk of having children entering the NEET category than those with their own vehicles.  Sandwell has good public transport.  However in rural Staffordshire, not 15 miles away, no access to a vehicle constitutes a very high risk.  There is very limited public transport, if you don’t have access to a car or bike, you can’t get to work.

The method identifies the risks relevant to each particular area.

  1. In your book, you discuss a few case studies. In four of them, the individuals are LDD as identified by SEN. Can you first discuss what the criteria are for LDD and what SEN is, and what the schools have done to assist these individuals?

Actually there are five case studies.  The learning disabilities category LDD, Learning Difficulties and/or Disabilities, is set centrally by government and relates to students who receive additional attention in the education system. We don’t go into detail about this in the book, although it is often raised in the personal accounts offered by the participants.  SEN stands for Special Educational Needs.

  1. One issue in children with learning disabilities is that they have secondary problems—low frustration tolerance, poor organization, poor time management, low self-esteem etc. Did you discuss these issues in your book?


Not specifically, although there are several first-hand accounts of these features in the case studies.  The book focuses on the unstable nature of these young peoples’ lives and how this raises the risk of entering the NEET category.  There is an interesting study to be made here though.


  1. YOT is the Youth Offending Team- what impact does this team have on the individuals in your book and how does this team fit into the big picture?


The team is run by the local authority which also has responsibility for the psychological service and the career’s service, Connexions.  It provides support for young people who have been involved with the police and those who are close to criminal activity.  They are well thought of, but the fact remains that being close to crime and possibly being involved with it leads to a significant risk of entering the NEET category, hence the inclusion in the list of risk factors.

  1. Now, talking globally, what is the job market like in the United Kingdom – are there many opportunities for upward mobility?


I understand that our economy is recovering and just today (28th Feb) the BBC news ran a story about London based employers finding recruitment of skilled IT workers very difficult.  However for those young people discussed in this book, the kinds of jobs available are low paid (often the national minimum wage) and they are competing with some much more skilled young people.  Youth unemployment is still an issue in the UK.  There are many initiatives working to engage the disaffected, some with more success than others. Sustainable employment is the goal for these young people. 


  1. How does being NEET impact your society in general?


Youth unemployment is always a concern.  The waste of talent is tragic and the increased instability for society in general is worrying.  Many people in later life are working longer hours, it would be advantageous for all to be able to harness the energies of the young rather than waste them.

  1. Is apprenticeship a possibility for any of these individuals? Would this assist people in the NEET category?


Very much so.  There are growing initiatives for apprenticeships, although we do not use as many of these as some other European countries, such as Germany.  Apprenticeships offer a real opportunity to engage in an economically active future.  One challenge for the young people described in the book is to overcome the de-stabilizing effect of the chaotic lives that they may have experienced so far.  There are examples in the book of young people who have done this.  The case study of Wayne is one which illustrates this point quite well.


  1.  Let’s talk about people’s lives nowadays- how complex are they and how much assistance do they get from the schools and parents?


The complexities vary. Out of the eight factors that we identified as being relevant in Sandwell, young people with more than five were very likely to become NEET.  Children who move address frequently are most at risk.  This can reflect families who are heavily in debt or who are fleeing people whom they are frightened of.  Other factors are reflected in poor school attendance or trouble with the police.  The project has helped identify troubled families whose needs straddle different agencies.  One exercise we undertook was to take high risk young people and look at different agency’s databases.  The young people often had had some contact with these agencies, but individually presented information which fell short of the agency’s thresholds for intervention.  However when we combined the data, the real picture became more apparent.  These young people were at risk of dropping out and had no external agency to turn to.  The model for early identification by using different information from different agencies is now being used to identify young people at risk of entering the care system.  We will see how this works in the years to come.


  1. Were any formal intelligence quotient (IQ) measures taken on any of your subjects? And what information did you gather?


No. IQ is not a measure used in education in the area studied. The nearest similar information comes from the low skills element.

  1. Does the United Kingdom have compulsory military service, and would this be an option for these NEET individuals?


No the UK does not have military service although young people can sign up for a career in the armed forces.  I suspect that there would be a great deal of resistance to this idea.


  1.  What have I neglected to ask?


The only element of the book not described here are the histories of childhood and employment. There has been a view expressed that the government’s initiative to raise the participation age (RPA) to eighteen is an attack on the civil liberties of young people.  However as the histories show, there has been a slow but steady increase in the age at which young people are considered independent of their parents.  The modal age over the last two thousand years for children going out to work is actually seven. Children of wealthy families historically did not start work until their mid twenties.  What our current concerns about teenagers who drop out reflects, is a civilizing influence for all young people, regardless of parental status or income.

  1. Where can I buy this book?

You can buy Becoming NEET: Risks, rewards, and realities, published by IOE Press in North America from Stylus Publishing and in the UK from the IOE Press website and most good bookshops and online retailers. Read more about Christopher Arnold’s work on his new blog for IOE Press.

Dr Christopher Arnold is a Senior Educational Psychologist working in Sandwell MBC. He has written extensively about the lives of marginalized young people and worked with the local Connexions Service to develop screening tools. His co-author, Tracey Baker, is a Personal Adviser working in Connexions Sandwell, and has developed approaches for working with the most vulnerable young people.

IOE Press is a university press, based at the Institute of Education (University of London), that publishes books and eBooks to meet the needs of UK and international practitioners, students, and scholars while complementing the Institute’s mission to pursue excellence in education and related areas of social science and professional practice.

The Institute of Education, University of London (IOE) is a world-leading university specializing in education and the social sciences. Founded in 1902, the IOE currently has more than 7,000 students and 800 staff. In January 2014, the IOE was recognized by Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education) in England for its ‘Outstanding’ initial teacher training across primary, secondary and further education. In the 2014 QS World University Rankings, the Institute was ranked number one for education worldwide. In the most recent Research Assessment Exercise two-thirds of the publications that the IOE submitted were judged to be internationally significant and over a third were judged to be “world leading”.


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