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[Not] becoming NEET in rural England

Young people are staying in education for longer than previous generations, with many finding their feet through further study and work. Yet one-in-ten 16-24 years olds is NEET: Not in Education, Employment or Training. What affects young people’s life chances and what can be done to boost opportunities for young people in rural areas so they don’t become NEET? Jessica Sellick investigates.

For statistical purposes, a person is NEET if they are aged 16 to 24 years and not in education, employment or training. In comparison, a young person is considered to be in education or training if they are doing an apprenticeship, on a Government employment or training programme, are working or studying towards a qualification, have received job-related training or education in the last four weeks, and/or enrolled on an education course and waiting for term to (re)start. Therefore, anybody aged 16 to 24 years not in any of these forms of education and training, and not in employment, is considered to be NEET.   

How many young people are NEET? 783,000 people aged 16 to 24 years in the UK were NEET in the second quarter of 2018. This is equivalent to 11.2% of all people in this age category; but a decrease of 25,000 young people compared to the first quarter [January to March 2018] and down 6,000 compared to the final quarter of the previous year [April to June 2017]. Of all the young people who are NEET, 37.4% were looking for and available for work (and therefore classified as unemployed) and the remainder were either not looking for work or not available for work (and therefore classified as economically inactive).

To break this down by numbers: 464,000 young people aged 16-24 years were unemployed June-August 2018. This is a reduction of 60,000 people from the previous quarter, and down 60,000 from the year before. This is the lowest number of young people unemployed since comparable records began in 1992. However, this fall coincides with a decrease in the total population aged 16-24 years – 23,000 lower than the previous quarter and 92,000 lower compared to the previous year. The number of young people who are economically inactive [not in work and not looking for work] remains about the same. However, the inactivity rate for young people is at one of its highest levels since 1992 at 38.7%. From April to June 2018 there were 211,000 economically inactive men aged 16 to 24 years who were NEET and 279,000 economically inactive women aged 16 to 24 years who were NEET.

The 2017 Youth Jobs Index found 2 million young people between 16-24 years had spent some time NEET; with 811,000 spending 12 months or more as NEET. The Index reveals how young women were more likely to become economically inactive than men. Young people who are unemployed were also likely to drop in and out of work over the course of a year compared to those who are economically inactive; suggesting job security for young people in both instances is fragile.  

In England, the regions with the highest proportion of 16 to 24 year olds who were NEET were the North East (14%), West Midlands (13.1%) and East of England (12.2%). Regions with a lower proportion of NEETs include the South West (9.4%), South East (9.7%) and London (10.4%).

According to Defra’s Statistical Digest of Rural England (September 2018 edition), in 2016, the percentage of working age people in employment [based on where people live and not where they work] was 74% in urban settlements and 78% in rural settlements. The percentage of people who were unemployed in 2016 was 5.1% in urban areas and 3.4% in rural settlements – below the England average rate of 4.8%. In the 2016-2017 academic year the percentage of pupils leaving school with English and mathematics GCSE grades A* to C was 69.75% in rural areas compared to 63.2% in urban areas. The proportion of the working age population with qualifications at NVQ Level 2 (or equivalent) in 2015 was 80.7% for people living in rural areas and 76.5% for people living in urban areas. For a given level of deprivation, the attainment levels of pupils living in rural areas was lower than for pupils living in urban areas with comparable levels of deprivation.

From looking at these statistical categories and numbers, it appears that rural areas might have fewer NEETs compared to urban areas. However, while levels of education attainment and labour market participation may be higher in rural areas overall, this will not be the case for all rural areas (e.g. compare and contrast sparse rural settlements with those proximate to a town or with rural places affected by a seasonal variation in their economies). Many of the current datasets are not broken down according to the Rural Urban Classification. While some rural places may be thriving others are facing decline and/or have a concentration of low wage, low skill and insecure jobs. Current datasets measure a whole population and can be inflexible in picking up the nuances of rural geographies (e.g. measures of deprivation, access to further education).  There is also the time-lag, with some datasets on qualifications and skills dating back to 2015. NEET as a statistical category does not tell us how many young people in rural areas are vulnerable to becoming NEET nor how many young people are unable to access educational, training and work opportunities.  How can we collect, analyse and interpret data that helps us to understand the rural and spatial components of becoming and being NEET?

What leads a young person to become NEET – and what are the biggest challenges facing young people who are furthest from the labour market?   

Back in 2010 the now-defunct Audit Commission published a report into the life chances and cost to the public purse of young people who were NEET. Six risk factors were identified that increased the chances of a young person becoming NEET. These were: (i) being NEET at least once before, (ii) pregnancy or parenthood,, (iii) supervision by a youth offending team, (iv) fewer than 3 months post-16 education, (v) disclosed substance abuse, and (vi) responsibilities as a carer. 

In 2011, the LG Group commissioned THE National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) to research young people’s aspirations in three Local Authority areas: Suffolk, Lincolnshire and Cumbria. The final report identified structural factors that may impact on young people’s aspirations in rural areas – these were around transport and distances between providers which were found to impact upon a young person’s post-16 study choice and independence; with lower wages affecting a young person’s choice to participate in Higher Education; and a limited pool of local employment opportunities affecting aspirations. Cultural factors impacting upon young people’s aspirations in rural areas included parental influence and neighbourhood characteristics.

Between 2014 and 2017 a European Project ‘NEETs at RISK, focused on prevention rather than remedial actions; identifying young people at risk of becoming NEET and providing them with tailored interventions to help stop them from becoming NEET (e.g. increasing their motivation to stay in school, helping them transit from education into training or a job). The project documented 6 factors that increase the probability of a young person becoming NEET: (i) low educational level, (ii) suffering some kind of disability, (iii) immigration background, (iv) difficult family environment, (v) living in remote areas, and (vi) low household income.

Some academic work has looked at risk factors relating to rural areas in the UK, comparing young people’s experiences of growing up NEET in urban and rural settings, and pointing to multiple deprivations and a lack of local opportunities in shaping the life chances of young people.

More recently, in 2017, research in Suffolk drew on statistical analysis and interviews with young people and professionals to understand the experiences of young people as they make the transition through education and into employment. The research found educational and income deprivation were the largest barriers to progression. While some young people in the county live with disadvantage, some appear to be developing a set of capabilities to cope with and surmount it. The researchers therefore suggested that voluntary and community sector organisations might consider undertaking activities that support and foster these capabilities in other young people. The research also called upon policy and decision makers to provide more tailored interventions to support particular (individual) young people rather than taking a universal (collective) approach.     

This work begins to highlight rural dimensions to being at risk of becoming NEET or being NEET. For it illuminates how young people living in rural areas face a number of barriers, connected to their remoteness, particularly around access to transport, careers advice, further education, employment and training support and youth services which can all affect their aspirations and attainment. How can we build on this work to more fully understand the risk factors in rural areas and start to address them?  

What are young people’s experiences of being NEET?

Several young women have given insights into their daily life and experiences of being unemployed and economically inactive to the Young Women’s Trust:  

“Monday morning, we wake up. I probably put the washing on and we go out. We walk up to see family members and I take the baby to the park. He goes to his nan’s every other weekend. On those weekends, I stay at home and clean. I don’t have any friends really – most people my age, they do not have kids and they want to go out and party. By the time it comes to the weekend and [name of baby] is away, I’m absolutely shattered. I’d rather sit at home with a cup of tea and a colouring book.” (Single mother, aged 21, lives alone with baby).

“I don’t go into shops or anything – pretty much do everything on line…I don’t like going into the public. The only time that I go out is when the dogs are with me.” (Single woman, aged 21, lives alone).

I recently evaluated the Humber Bounce Back Programme. This provided 82 young people who were NEET with support to improve their mental health and move closer to the job market or into further education. This pilot programme was delivered in 4 Local Authority areas: Hull, East Riding of Yorkshire, North Lincolnshire and North East Lincolnshire. Over a 12-month period the young people received focussed support from delivery staff, third party organisations and their peers who found creative ways to help them feel better in themselves, to more fully participate in their communities, return to education and learning and/or play an active role in the labour market. Of the 82 young people who participated: 18 young people who were NEET moved into employment; 13 young people who were NEET moved into education; 4 young people who were NEET moved into training and 2 young people who were NEET took up apprenticeships. The remaining participants took up volunteering and work experience opportunities (9 young people) with 28 moving closer to the labour market i.e., submitting job applications and now actively seeking work.

I asked young people about the difference Bounce Back had made to them. They told me:

“It gave me new experiences that I’d never dreamed of getting on my own. I didn’t see myself ever going to London, to the House of Commons, speaking to MPs…I didn’t see myself standing up at the Freedom Festival and performing in front of 300 people. It’s given me the determination and motivation to go my own pace. I didn’t think I had a future and now I do.”

“It helped me find ways of writing about things…personal things…and finding out about what I wanted to do. It’s connected me to other people who write, helped me meet other people, and go back to college.”

I also asked delivery staff about the difference the programme had made:

 “It is important to overcome anxieties before clients can address employability issues. Young people can get frustrated; they know what they need to do but can’t; some find it difficult to ask for help. They have been let down before and need to build bridges and they are sick of telling the same stories over again."

“Without question the project has offered wraparound support that not only helps to support mental health issues but also allows for the development of key vocational skills needed for the workplace.”

Much of the current evidence base is built around statistics or literature outlining risk groups rather than what it’s like to be NEET from a young person’s perspective. How can we enable young people living in rural areas who are NEET, or at risk of becoming NEET, a voice in policy and practice? 

What can we do to try to prevent young people from being (or becoming) NEET?

How can we help young people to learn?  According to the findings of the 2017 Youth Jobs Index securing Level 2 qualifications are crucial for helping young people avoid being long-term NEET and sustain their journey into education or work.

While the DfE has sought to provide a framework to increase participation and reduce the proportion of young people who are NEET, the responsibility and accountability for doing so lies with Local Authorities. Since 2007 the September Guarantee has supported Local Authorities in their statutory duty to ensure that all young people in England continue in education or training until at least their 18th birthday. Here, all 16 and 17 year olds are entitled to an offer of a suitable place in education or training regardless of what qualifications they gained when they left school.

In 2013 the Government increased the Raised Participation Age (RPA), requiring young people to continue in education or training until at least their 18th birthday. In this instance young people can choose to participate in full-time education or combine part-time study with a job or volunteering; and/or undertake an apprenticeship or traineeship.

The Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) is a financial scheme which helps students with the cost of further education.  EMA was closed in England in 2010 but as education is a devolved matter it remains in operation in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. In England, the 16-19 Bursary Fund now provides targeted funding to help young people aged 16, 17 and/or 18 years with the costs of staying on in post-16 education (e.g. paying for books or equipment, support towards transport and lunch costs).     

In addition to the DfE and Local Authorities; helping young people to continue to learn also lies within the remits of the Education & Skills Funding Agency (ESFA), schools and colleges, employers, charities and Ofsted.

In 2011 the Government published Alison Wolf’s Review of Vocational Education. This called upon Government to remove some vocational qualifications from the 16-19 performance tables, and replace the system of funding learning providers per qualification with a system of funding per student. In 2016 an Independent Panel published its report containing proposals to reform technical education.   

Since 2017 Government has been undertaking major reforms to the technical education scheme in England. This includes the publication of the Post-16 Skills Plan, a consultation on the Technical and Further Education Act 2017; the creation of 2-year technical programmes called T Levels, and established University Technical Colleges (UTCs). The DfE is currently running a competition to launch a network of Institutes of Technology (IoTs) across the country.

In December 2014 the DfE established the Careers & Enterprise Company (CEC); an employer-led organisation that is independent of Government and provides advice to pupils aged 12-18 years. The CEC also administers a Careers & Enterprise Fund. In December 2017 the DfE published its Careers Strategy which sets out a range of measures to be implemented between 2018 and 2020, including an investment fund of £5 million to help the most disadvantaged pupils which will be administered by the CEC and a requirement on schools and colleges to have a named Careers Leader and careers programme in place.  

How can we help young people to earn? The Support for Schools programme sees Jobcentre Plus advisors provide careers guidance and support to 12-18 year olds in schools across England. An evaluation of the programme commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) reveals how it has been particularly successful when targeted at young people at risk of becoming NEET and/or among families with a background of joblessness because of the way the programme raises aspirations and presents a positive vision of life after school.

Back in December 2015 the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (now BEIS) published Vision 2020. This contained Government plans to increase the quality and quantity of apprenticeships – with an ambition to achieve 3 million apprenticeships by 2020. The document sets out the roles of employers and other bodies such as the Institute for Apprenticeships, Careers & Enterprise Company and UCAS. In April 2017 the Apprenticeship Levy came into force, meaning all UK employers with a pay bill of over £3 million per year contribute 0.5% into an apprenticeship service. The Youth Friendly Employer Quality Kitemark has also been introduced, and has been designed by young people and employers. 

For young people who want to get an apprenticeship or job but do not have the appropriate skills or experience, traineeships last for up to 6 months and involve a training organisation working with a young person, providing them with work preparation training, English and maths support (if/where required) and a work experience placement with an employer.   

Education and training helps young people to achieve a higher level of qualification, increasing their employment prospects and wages. These monetary returns for individuals over their working life are estimated to add up to between £48,000 and £74,000 for Level 2 apprenticeships; between £77,000 and £117,000 for Level 3 apprenticeships and £150,000 or more at Level 4 and above. For employers, the cost of apprenticeship training pays for itself within one or two years of completion; and for the public purse the amount of return is £26.00-£28.00 for every £1.00 of Government investment in apprenticeships.

The Adult Education Budget (AEB) funds a range of ‘second chance’ further education provision for 19-23 year olds; including helping young people to attain Level 2 or Level 3 qualifications.

Young people with learning difficulties and disabilities have access to Supported Internships – these are study programmes based with employers and typically last for a year.

In April 2017 the Youth Obligation was introduced into Universal Credit (UC). This scheme is intended to provide intensive support for 18-21 year olds who are expected to be looking for work within 6 months of making a UC claim. After 6 months client are expected to apply for an apprenticeship, traineeship, gain work-based skills or take up a work placement. The New Enterprise Allowance (NEA) provides funding and support to help benefits claimants start or expand their own business.

Alongside policy and initiatives from Government; charities and voluntary and community sector organisations are also supporting young people who are NEET or at risk of becoming NEET. For example, Talent Match is a project funded by the Big Lottery Fund that supports 18 to 24 year olds who have been out of work or training for over 12 months; The Prince’s Trust Achieve Programme provides personal development support to 11 to 19 year olds to prevent them from becoming NEET; Groundwork employs specialist youth practitioners called Achievement Coaches to help NEETs; and ThinkForward runs two long-term coaching programmes,

While there is no shortage of public, private, charitable and voluntary and community sector initiatives working with young people; to what extent rurality is taken into account in their design and delivery is uncertain – and precisely how vulnerable young people are able to fully navigate this plethora of initiatives in rural settings is unclear.   

How can we ‘think rural’ in support young people to earn and learn?

If we can identify what some of the rural risk factors are, and what young people’s experiences of being NEET in rural areas are, then we may be able to design interventions that better tailored to supporting young people who are NEET and prevent others from becoming NEET.

In a rural context this means thinking about how parish councils, community groups and voluntary organisations have infrastructure and networks that can support local young people. But this also means supporting these organisations in their attempts to often ‘fill the gaps’ left by the reduction in public services in rural areas (e.g. the withdrawal of universal youth provision).  

In a rural context there are proportionately more small businesses (single site or headquarters) and turnover per person employed is lower, especially for businesses in a sparse setting. Linking local employers and professionals into local schools, providing training in or near rural communities, mentoring and supporting local projects and services that will provide employment for local young people will ensure that ‘staying’ is a viable reality for young people who want to learn, earn and remain. In some rural settings the private sector has led initiatives to showcase how rural areas can offer fun and fulfilling employment opportunities for young people (e.g. Rock the Cotswolds).

In a rural context there may be more opportunities for universities to undertake outreach activities. For example, Professor Sarah Elton (an anthropologist at Durham University) is working with a farming charity called UTASS to support young people in the Durham Dales to acquire anthropological and archaeological skills and to consider pursuing a science career – this has also involved taking a group of young people on a visit to the university campus.  

In a rural context this also means finding innovative solutions to tackle broader issues – which are intertwined with education and employment but are not currently part of the initiatives described above – such as broadband and mobile connectivity, public transport, affordable housing, hidden poverty, isolation and service centralisation. 

All-too-often young people who are NEET – or at risk of becoming NEET – are ‘invisible’ and ‘not on the radar’ of numerous policies and initiatives targeted at this age category. More needs to be done to see, hear and understand their experiences and to find solutions that help steer young people towards learning, earning, participating and feeling valued in our rural communities.


Jessica is a researcher/project manager at Rose Regeneration. Her current work includes helping an applicant prepare a bid to become an Institute of Technology, supporting public sector bodies to measure social value; evaluating a hospital avoidance service; and undertaking a piece of work on migration. She is also a senior research fellow at the National Centre for Rural Health and Care. In her spare time Jessica sits on the board of a housing association.

She can be contacted by email or telephone 01522 521211. Website: @RoseRegen


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