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Small drop in NEETs, but who counts the cost of the missing?

NEET. Not a neat term. Danny Lawson/PA Wire/Press Association Images

New figures have been published on the number of young people the government classes as NEET – not in any form of education, employment or training. The statistics show that the number of 16-24 year olds NEET in England fell by 46,000 in October to December 2013, a 0.7% drop from the same quarter in 2012. There are now 14.2% of 16-24 year olds defined as NEET.

But the department for education’s statistical bulletin makes clear that this fall is “not statistically significant”. Given that the peak figure during the last quarter of 2013 was 28,000 higher than in 2012, it seems to indicate that youth unemployment remains stubbornly high. However, the new figures do take the number of NEET 16-24 year-olds below the one million mark, to 844,000. No doubt the government will take comfort in that.

Who is missing?

Measuring both NEET and youth unemployment is not without its problems. The big numbers, such as we have seen this week, are probably only part of a larger iceberg.

The estimates are based on household surveys, and as such do not include young people who may be NEET (or unemployed) but don’t live in households. This includes the homeless (both those on the street to sofa surfers), some young people in care or leaving care, those in prison, in hospital or other forms of institutional care, travellers and other hard to reach groups. All these are either NEET or unemployed but will not figure in the official counts.

In policy terms, the Coalition government inherited the commitment of the previous Labour administration to ensure that all young people were in some form of EET. This will make NEET 16-18 year-olds as illegal by 2015.

From Status Zero to NEET

The obsession with NEET is curious. Most academics these days think it is a rather silly concept, defined as it is by a series of negatives, and containing categories of young people whom, it is claimed, have little in common. Why not simply take stock of figures about youth unemployment, as defined by the International Labour Organisation, and confined to those who are “actively seeking work” and immediately available for it should it be found for them?

The term NEET first entered the lexicon of public policy in the late 1990s and has since spread like wildfire across Europe. Earlier in the decade, sociologists in South Wales had adopted the term “Status Zero”, for young people on careers service records who were not classified as 1 (in education), 2 (in employment) or 3 (in training). The sociologists, however, added to the technical definition used by careers services by adding that “status zero” also seemed to symbolise “going nowhere, and counting for nothing”.

When the then Department of Education and Skills finally took notice, they re-named “status zero” by the more sanitised term “NEET”. This was also the preferred term when the Social Exclusion Unit made its fifth report Bridging the Gap on NEET in 1999. It was this report which gave rise to the new Connexions Strategy and Connexions Service, for young people, tagged by former prime minister Tony Blair as “our front-line policy for young people” in 2000.

There soon followed a whole raft of other New Labour initiatives including the Educational Maintenance Allowance(EMA), paying young people to stay on at school at the age of 16. And by then we had a department of Children, Young People and Families to symbolise a focus on an holistic, whole-person approach to a client group.

But this is all many moons ago. On its first week in office in 2010, the new Coalition Government abolished the Department of Children, Young People and Families, replacing it with Michael Gove’s Department of Education, concerned with school reforms, pupil standards, and back to basics in the classroom.

The EMA and Connexions became victims of austerity and Gove’s Department showed little interest or patience with the vulnerable young people making up NEET. The concept of youth unemployment is “tidier”, it is argued, because it excludes teenage mums, young carers, many care leavers, the chronically ill or disabled and any others who are not immediately job-ready and seeking work.

Gaining traction on the continent

The EU, meanwhile, having embraced the concern for NEETs, has extended the age definition up to the age of 25. Europeans seemed more inclined to accept that NEET was a useful concept in helping to address a diverse, but nevertheless important, set of processes of social exclusion and inclusion.

Youth unemployment rates, EU-28 and EA-17, seasonally adjusted, January 2000 - December 2013. Eurostat

To do nothing about NEET 16-25 year olds was to run the risk of not only wasted lives, but wasted public money. In December 2013, the youth unemployment rate was 23.2% across the 28 EU countries.

The most recent estimates of the cost to public finance of NEET across Europe is 153 billion Euro (or 1.2% of Europe’s GDP) per year in 2012. In England, it was estimated in 2010 that the public finance cost across the life-time of NEET 16-18 year olds alone, was £12 billion. This is quite a lot of public finance waste as well as wasted lives.

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