Memorandum submitted by the Equality and Human Rights Commission

Introduction

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (the Commission) was established on 1st October 2007 under the Equality Act 2006. It champions equality and human rights for all, works to eliminate discrimination, reduce inequality, protect human rights and build good relations, and ensure that everyone has a fair chance to participate in society.

The Commission brings together the work of the three previous equality commissions, the Commission for Racial Equality, the Disability Rights Commission and the Equal Opportunities Commission. The Commission's remit covers race, disability, gender, age, sexual orientation, religion or belief and the application of human rights.

1. Strategies for the identification of young people at risk of falling into the NEET category

Evidence from the Commission's 'Staying On'[1] project, and from other organisations, indicates that there are a lot of complex and interlinked issues involved in the process of young people opting out of learning and work. No clear pattern of how one particular young person can become disengaged emerges. However, when certain sub groups are examined it is clear that disengagement is not a random process. There are common barriers and problems, such as access to education, which have a great impact upon the groups of young people who are facing the most inequality.

The Commission's work highlighted that certain groups of young people suffer the greatest inequality in education. This includes young people who are disabled, young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, refugees and asylum seekers, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller young people, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people, and young mothers. The statistics show that this inequality in education translates into an increased likelihood of becoming in the 'not in education, employment or training' (NEET) category. Certain groups are far more likely to become NEET than their peers including disabled young people, teenage mothers, and young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds[2].

Our 'Staying On' survey[3] highlighted a number of factors that appear to have a major impact on whether particular groups engage in learning at school. In summary, our research found that NEET young people are more likely to feel physically and emotionally unsafe (linked to identity-based bullying); to say they will drop out of learning; and to experience obstacles to learning across a range of indicators. NEET young people also tend to have low career aspirations. The barriers in the education system that these groups of young people face are discussed throughout this submission.

By examining these factors and having rigorous monitoring and data collection procedures in place (for example, through the equality duties), schools and local authorities will be better placed to identify those most at risk of becoming NEET and take early action to support the needs of these pupils.

2. Services and programmes to support those most at risk of becoming NEET, and to reduce the numbers and address the needs of those who have become persistently NEET

 

Our research found that greater choice for young people pre-and post-16 is vital in helping to attract people to stay in education and encourage previously disengaged young people to re-engage. Flexible provision can include part-time, evening and weekend courses. This kind of provision has proved valuable when supporting groups, such as teenage mothers, to re-engage. Flexible types of learning in different locations should be available and subject and careers advisers should work with young people directly to make them aware of these alternative options.

Our review[4] surfaced the importance of providing learning opportunities beyond formal schooling. Alternative curriculum models, such as learning models that allow young people to learn on the job, are seen as positive in re-engaging young people who are disaffected and excluded from school. An emphasis on life skills or 'soft' skills is an important element of this provision, because these are essential for helping young people to enter employment and become independent in life.

This issue was highlighted by disengaged young people themselves who explained that they start to struggle and become disengaged at around 13 and 14 years of age. Because of this, they feel it is important that more options for vocational tasters and different routes of learning are offered at these ages or even before. Some disengaged young people also identified Further Education (FE) as a more attractive place to learn than school because they would be treated as more mature and independent learners. But without GCSE passes, FE was closed to them.

Findings from our survey indicate that young people are more likely to engage if they are told about the direct benefits of vocational options and how they link to their chances of finding work. If they can see that doing a specific course or apprenticeship is likely to improve their chances of getting a specific type of job they are more motivated. Clear linking between learning and employment will provide young people with confidence that this route will help them reach their career goals. In turn, this may improve the likelihood of take-up and help improve attendance on these courses.

Our qualitative research[5] found that most young people believe vocational courses to be of significant value, but only where these cover a sufficient range, are relevant to their particular goals, and include quality work experience with appropriate employers. They are also unsure of the usefulness of placements, citing a perceived lack of structure and limited opportunities to get a real taste of the world of work. Increased opportunities for work-based and practical learning may improve young people's engagement with more formal learning. Several participants in the review suggested creating pre-apprenticeships and bite-size vocational qualifications.

The review also found that poor reading and writing scores normally translate into low achievement during adolescence with a subsequent lack of motivation. Low ability in reading is identified as one of the key reasons for disengagement, sometimes due to links with experience of being bullied. Hence we recommend stand-alone literacy programmes should also be encouraged for young people who struggle with reading and writing at secondary school.

Many of those who become disengaged from school before the age of 16 feel that the most effective way for them to learn is through smaller class sizes - a maximum of 10 per class. They perceive this will enable them to work at their own pace and receive the one-to-one support they need to allow them to progress.

3. The effectiveness of the Government's NEET strategy


The Commission believes the recent Government's NEET strategy Investing in Potential sets out some positive commitments to help those already in the NEET group and also to prevent young people becoming NEET, including the September and January Guarantee, a focus on the importance of Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG) and flexibility in learning through Foundation Learning. We are also supportive of the announcement that the Activity Agreement pilots will be extended. Our review notes that young people may be encouraged to engage in learning through the Agreements as part of the process of raising the leaving age.

The strategy is clear that the NEET group at 16-18 are not homogenous and we strongly support the identification of particular groups of young people facing the greatest range of personal and other barriers, thus increasing their likelihood of becoming NEET and staying so for longer. This includes pregnant young women and those with learning difficulties and disabilities. It is vital that the strategy implementation plans set out specific policy and practice interventions for these groups which are supported by clear practical guidance for schools and other key bodies such as Connexions.

The Commission is pleased to see the focus on early interventions as preventative measures for pre-16 are crucial in tackling the NEET problem. Disengagement from learning has been identified as a cumulative process that can start in primary school. This young age at which children can begin to disengage indicates the need for early intervention during the primary school years. This is particularly important given that young people tend to form ideas about their future between the ages of 11 and 14.

The Commission welcomes the focus on IAG as a key element of both the Raising the Participation Age (RPA) and the wider NEET strategy, and recognises that the introduction of the September and January Guarantee, the transfer of responsibility to local authorities and the role out of the National Apprenticeships Service are catalysts for the improvement of IAG.

In the Commission's view the goals of RPA will only be realised if IAG delivery is significantly improved. Our research identified poor and inadequate careers IAG as one the biggest failings and areas for improvement in helping engage NEETs and other groups that currently fail to fulfil their learning potential. Disturbingly 2 in 10 young people (18 per cent or approximately 700,000 young people in England) say they have not had enough information and advice to make the right choices about their future. This rises to 23 per cent of young people with a disability and a quarter of those from ethnic minorities. Also of concern is the finding that nearly two in 10 (18 per cent) of 16-18 year olds have not had a one-to-one interview with a careers or Connexions adviser. Careers advice and work experience placement opportunities have been subject to criticism, in that they can potentially constrain young people's options and aspirations if managed badly and stereotypically.

A key finding from our research was that one of the primary means of helping young people to re-engage with learning when they are ready is by providing young people with appropriate IAG when they ask for it. The Commission believes this issue is key to improving the long term prospects of NEETs and other pupils who have disengaged from learning and struggled with qualifications and job prospects. Accessible IAG that is easy to comprehend for young people and their parents, and is tailored to local provision and the needs of the young person, is particularly critical during the transitional periods from primary to secondary school and between compulsory and post-compulsory education.

Currently, what is on offer during transitional periods is not sufficient. There is also a need to provide IAG to young people who are in informal learning, in order to encourage them to re-engage with learning. IAG could be more closely attuned to community needs, for example, by emphasising what job and learning opportunities are available locally to 16-year-olds. It is important that young people from minority groups are given appropriate and unstereotypical IAG that supports them to realise their potential, for example, promoting the inclusion of young ethnic minority people in Higher Education and supporting young disabled people to access work based learning and apprenticeships. More promotion in and out of school is needed about the services that are available to young people.

Whilst noting the focus in the strategy on tailored provision and the creation of four equal learning routes, many of the young people questioned in our survey complained that they are not given full information on the range and types of academic and vocational options available to them once they reach 16. Strikingly all groups of young people questioned raised this as a key issue. There is a perception that schools select routes for people that nearly always involve academic qualifications. In this sense, they feel the decision has been made for them and for some, this leads to a sense of frustration. Provision should be concerned with explaining what is available apart from academic qualifications and providing enough information to allow young people to weigh up the positive and negative aspects of each option. The statutory guidance for impartial careers education will be crucial in this respect and the Commission calls for stringent monitoring of how this is implemented in schools.

Our review found the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) has been effective in supporting young people from low-income backgrounds to remain engaged in learning post-16. However, it is important to ensure that methods of claiming are not overly complex. The cost of travel to post-16 learning establishments can be prohibitive and there can be course fees to meet and equipment to buy, depending upon the nature of the course. A key area of concern is that funding arrangements are often inflexible and can discriminate against certain groups such as refugees and asylum seekers, teenage mothers and those from low-income families. The inflexibility of the system can include funding not covering all courses, which means that young people may have to make a choice based on the availability of funding.

4. The likely impact of raising the participation age on strategies for addressing the needs of young people not in education, employment or training

 

Raising the participation age marks a once in a generation opportunity to innovate and make a real difference to hundreds of thousands of underachieving and disengaged young people in Britain. Our research makes clear however, that merely raising the education leaving age to 18 is insufficient to engage all young people in learning.

There are major issues in the way the current system works. These include poor and inadequate careers education and IAG, a de-valuing of the vocational options and a narrow definition of 'success'. Without changes there is a danger that distinct groups of young people will miss out on the staying on opportunity. We acknowledge that much excellent and effective work is on-going, yet our studies strongly suggest that we need to do more for those young people at risk of becoming disengaged from learning or to re-engage those who have already disengaged.

The Commission acknowledges that reforms to the education system are bringing improvements to the problems of underachievement and disengagement. We also recognise that with courses like e2e (Entry to Employment), the 14-19 agenda, diplomas and apprenticeships, there are moves to provide entry routes for struggling young people, and to introduce vocational options and validate them with NVQ qualifications specifying their equivalency to GCSEs and A-Levels. The system is moving in the right direction, but traditions are hard to break and all our evidence points to little or no impact on many young people who are demanding change.

The Commission's research leads us to believe that part of the current inequality in learning is due to the overwhelming focus on the academic linear route, as opposed to vocational qualifications or 'on the job' training. GCSE and A-Level passes equal success in the minds of most people. Doing well in vocational courses and apprenticeships should also equal success.

5. The opportunities and future prospects in education, training and employment for 16-18 year olds

 

The Staying On report made a series of recommendations for actions that we see as key ways of widening opportunities for all young people to enable them to engage in meaningful learning post-16, bringing greater equality to the system. To assist the Committee in formulating its own recommendations these are set out below.

Recommendations from Staying on Report:

The Commission will explore the IAG issues raised in this report, with particular attention to:

Information, advice and guidance including differential and stereotyped advice given to girls and boys, disabled young people and ethnic minorities

Lack of aspiration and support for professional careers for working class young people

Lack of access to full subject and careers IAG for some groups

Treatment of disabled young people, and why so few disabled young people are given access to work based learning and apprenticeships

How to tackle the undervaluing of apprenticeships and other vocational training compared to academic routes

Better information on the positive benefits of vocational courses for work outcomes

Role of employers and how academic qualifications compare to vocational qualifications for recruitment

Better ways to advise young people already disengaged from learning

Further Education colleges to consider offering vocational courses to young people who have no GCSEs as a way of re-engaging 16 year-olds who leave school without any qualifications.

The Commission believes there should be a review of the level of EMA. It is also important that young people and their parents are provided with sufficient and accessible information, advice and guidance about available funding and how to apply for it.

All schools and colleges to include anti-bullying strategies in their equality schemes.

DCSF to work with schools to develop and introduce a programme of tasters, work experience and vocational options earlier than at present - possibly from the age of 12 and 13 when disengagement starts. They could include a roll-out of the Young Apprenticeship scheme across all schools with bite-size apprenticeships for all. Hands-on and work-related learning is most preferred for young people disengaged and losing confidence.

DCSF to explore the potential benefits of smaller class sizes on young people who are at risk of disengagement or disruptive behaviour.

The Commission to work with the new National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) to boost and promote closer links between learning and jobs. Linking learning to employment is a key principle for improving engagement in learning post-16. Along with the development of diplomas, this could include more practical learning, pre-apprenticeships and bite-sized vocational qualifications.

The Commission to work with the NAS on the development of critical mass pilots and other initiatives, for example girl buddy groups, to tackle stereotyping and segregation, that confines young women and ethnic minority young people to low paid apprenticeships and to open up access for disabled young people.

The Government to review funding for 16-18 provision. The raising of participation age, the transfer of funding to local authorities and the new Young People's Learning Agency, provide an opportunity to re-think funding and be more flexible about who has access to the money. For example, vocational courses run by third sector providers and employers could get the same sort of funding as school and college-based education. Already providers such as Rathbone (a voluntary organisation providing opportunities for young people to re-engage with learning) and YWCA are being called on by schools unable to deal with complex learning needs.

The Commission to work with the DCSF to highlight good practice of targeting young people who are struggling with their reading and writing from an early age, and during transitional periods from primary to secondary school, and between compulsory and post-compulsory education.

Assessing all new pupils and identifying which are significantly behind with literacy skills. In response setting up special literacy classes for struggling pupils. This is a scheme championed by Greenwood Dale School in an extremely deprived area of Nottingham, which has seen the number of pupils getting five GCSEs or more rise to 93 per cent last year.

 

6. Next Steps

 

New solution-focused research

To take forward the key Staying On recommendations, the EHRC has commissioned two major new pieces of research. These will consist of a review of policy and literature, stakeholder interviews and local authority surveys and will explore the effectiveness of current provision for young people across our mandate, barriers to better engagement, and good practice including innovative and sustainable interventions.

 

The research will focus on:

 

Equality in Careers - due May 2010

Identity-based bullying: prevention and response - due April 2010

 

Data and monitoring

 

The success of the NEET Strategy and measurable progress in improving the engagement and prospects of NEET young people is dependant on effective analysis of the size and constituency of the group at national and local level. A range of different statistics currently identify who is NEET, but the size and make-up of the group varies depending on source. A first step must be availability of robust national and local equality disaggregated data.

Public sector providers of education are required by statute to have equality schemes and action plans that identify inequality gaps in participation and engagement and how these will be addressed for different groups. This mechanism could provide a clear picture of the extent and characteristics of NEET young people across all local authorities, with time bound plans for targeted action. We hope that the Inquiry will highlight the role that equality duties can and should play in identifying disengagement across equality strands, planning action for change and monitoring improvements.

 

January 2010



[1] Staying On: Making the extra years in education count for all young people; EHRC; 2009. The Commission led a programme of work in response to the Education and Skills Act 2008, specifically in relation to the decision to raise the education participation age to 18 by 2015. This work is focussed on ensuring that all groups of young people are able to benefit from the extra two years in education or training. http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/uploaded_files/ehrc_education_60pp.pdf

[2] The Commission's Staying On report provided statistics indicating that within working class 16-year-olds, 11 per cent are NEET; 13 per cent among those with a disability; 22 per cent among those excluded from school; 32 per cent among those who are persistent truants; and 74 per cent among teenage mothers. This compared to an overall figure of approximately 9% of all 16-18 year olds at the end of 2007

[3] Jackson and Hudson (2009); Engaging all young people in learning after 16: a survey; EHRC

[4] Haywood, Walker, O'Toole, Hewitson, Pugh, Sundaram (2009); Engaging young people in meaningful learning after 16: A review; EHRC.

[5] McLarty and Moran (2009); Engaging all young people in meaningful learning after 16; EHRC