Professor Sue Maguire is Honorary Professor at the IPR
‘Any evidence that we have on the NEET group is dated. We have pockets to support different types of policy development, but no way do we have good evidence…’
This admission by a policymaker about the dearth of evidence on which to base policy targeting those young people, currently numbering 857,000 according to official UK figures, who are not in education, employment or training (NEET), highlights an area crying out for substantial research and investigation.
A contested term
We have become very familiar with the term ‘NEET’ and its widespread application to quantify levels of social and economic exclusion among young people. Leaving aside the suspicion that NEET became the preferred term partly because of our love of acronyms and partly because it was less emotionally charged than Status Zero, which was the original classification in the UK, it is important to remember that it was originally applied to 16- and 17-year-olds who could no longer be classified as ‘unemployed’ due to legislative changes. Since then, NEET has become the term used not just in the UK, but internationally, to refer to a much wider age cohort of young people (16-24 in the UK).
But how useful is the NEET label in identifying the true volume of people in this category? Significant numbers of those aged 16-18 are not identified as NEET because their destinations are not recorded, and large numbers of those over 18 who are defined as NEET fail to register for welfare or other types of support in the UK. Thus, the numbers in the claimant count are much smaller than those in the overall NEET population, leading to the conclusion that a large number of young people are unsupported by statutory services – why is this? Given the disconnect between the official NEET statistics and policy intervention to track, manage and support the estimated NEET population, perhaps it is time to re-think our application of the term NEET and, crucially, our policy responses to support young people who fall into this overall definition.
Irrespective of the expanded scope of the NEET group, it is apparent that gender differences within the cohort have been neglected in the literature, wider debates and, crucially, policy formation about the NEET group. Data from the January-March quarter of the 2016 Labour Force Survey and the National Online Manpower Information System highlighted differences between NEET females and NEET males. Despite its original purpose, the NEET category now includes young people who are actively seeking work, i.e. the economically active (EA) NEET group, as well as those who are economically inactive (EI), primarily because they have caring and/or domestic responsibilities or are unable to participate in education, employment or training due to long-term ill health. NEET young women outnumbered NEET young men (432,000 to 376,000); 66% of the young women were EI, compared to 43% of the young men; and young people who were NEET and EA were mostly young men (59%).
Differences are also apparent in the types of benefits received by males and females in the NEET and EI group, with young women claiming Income Support (IS) in larger numbers, as a result of caring responsibilities. Most young men in the NEET EI group claim Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) due to illness or disability, with the primary cause being psychological problems. Significant numbers of young women claim ESA for the same reason.
To date, relatively little attention has been paid to young women who are NEET and EI, with a passive acceptance that their ‘caring’ responsibilities sideline them from meaningful support or policy intervention. Reasons for the differences described above need to be explored in greater depth in order to provide evidence on which effective policy initiatives can be introduced. A study currently being undertaken by myself and Young Women’s Trust, with funding from the Barrow Cadbury Trust, is seeking to address some of the gaps and shortcomings in our understanding of what it means to be NEET and EI, and what impact this categorisation has on the lives of young women.
During the first year of this two-year project, interviews were carried out with ten key experts, including policymakers and academics. In addition, case studies were undertaken in five localities, with local stakeholders who were involved in devising and delivering employment interventions in each area being interviewed. These stakeholders typically included local authorities, Jobcentres, Local Enterprise Partnerships, education and training providers, and voluntary and community sector organisations.
Among these respondents, there was concern about the general acceptance that all young women who are NEET and EI would remain so for long periods of time because of their early motherhood, caring responsibilities or ill-health. Rather, it was felt that this issue required ‘unpacking’ in order to gain more understanding about their needs and requirements. An important finding was the relationship between the type of welfare benefit and intervention that young people receive and their classification as either NEET EI or NEET EA. Young women, who are much more likely than young men to be NEET and EI, typically remain on welfare support for much longer periods than those who are EA, and are also far less likely to receive any form of positive support or intervention. Conversely, the support offered to young people who are actively seeking work and claiming JSA was fiercely criticised for its high levels of sanctioning, unrealistic target-setting and emphasis on removing claimants from the register at the earliest opportunity. It is only the unemployment rate that attracts national media attention and which is scrutinised by national government and by authorities such as the International Labour Office. This difference between the two groups is also reflected in the proportions of their respective claimant counts, with much lower numbers of young people (especially young women) being present in the NEET and EA category.
A preferable approach would involve claimants being provided with targeted and tailored support, instead of being subjected to demanding targets and having the threat of sanctions hanging over them. Concerns were also expressed about the impact of being NEET and EI on young women who were relatively isolated within their households and communities, notably their propensity to suffer from low self-confidence, low self-esteem and, for some, mental health issues. Their detachment from external and independent support and advice could have long-lasting effects on their health and likelihood of future employment. It was reported to be very difficult for local agencies to identify and engage with young women in the NEET and EI group.
For young mothers who are NEET and EI, major barriers to engaging in education, employment or training were deemed to be: affordable childcare; a reluctance to leave their children; access to transport; and appropriate employment and training opportunities.
The issue of the large numbers of young people who do not appear in the system and are effectively ‘unknown’, as mentioned above, was prominent in respondents’ concerns. This was attributed, in part, to cuts to local services which have placed constraints on local authorities’ ability to fulfil the requirement for mapping and tracking young people in Years 12-14. Official statistics show that, in many localities, the ‘unknown’ rates are higher than the NEET rates. This has been exacerbated by the decision to limit any tracking responsibility until the individual’s 18th birthday – when the post-18 group is, perhaps, more in need of monitoring and when the NEET rate significantly rises. Certainly, the absence of any agency or organisation with statutory responsibility for measuring the number of, or addressing the needs of, young people over the age of 18/19 who fail to apply for welfare support was perceived to be of immediate concern.
It was suggested that the reasons for young people’s detachment, leading to their destinations and circumstances being ‘unknown’, included: an unwillingness to cooperate with benefit regulations; fear of statutory bodies; family support which allows them to avoid registration for benefits; the stigma of benefit receipt; and informal or casual working arrangements. Whatever the reasons, this ‘hidden’ NEET population remains largely unquantifiable in many localities and out of the remit of statutory services. Hence, little is known about young people who fall into this category in terms of their characteristics, what has caused their detachment, and any barriers they may face.
The young women, in their own words
The in-depth interviews with ten young women who were NEET and EI provided illuminating insights into their lives and experiences, particularly in relation to their school and post-school experiences, domestic circumstances, money management, and their hopes and aspirations. In this admittedly small sample, those in receipt of IS had caring responsibilities (for their children), while those on ESA suffered from anxiety and depression – one respondent refused to claim welfare support because of her previous negative experiences of dealing with the Job Centre.
Half of the young women were living in their parental home. However, most of them continued to rely on a parent and/or family members for emotional, practical and financial advice and support, irrespective of their circumstances. This included practical help with childcare, food, clothing and personal care costs and assisting with application forms for housing or benefit receipt. Those who lived at their parents’ home contributed minimal amounts to the household budget and, in some cases, their dependence on their family resulted in a reluctance to move out of the family home, because of the perceived risks this posed to their established support networks. A lack of friendship networks, few hobbies and interests, and limited social activities were the norm. Thus, family networks appeared to both insulate and isolate young women from the outside world.
Strikingly, in the face of scarce resources, these young women were adept at managing their finances. This management took different forms, from prioritising expenditure on food, rent, fuel, children’s clothing and toiletries while eking out fortnightly benefit payments, to using loans to buy furniture and other goods from charity shops.
Questions must be raised about our ability to implement effective and appropriate (meaningful) policy interventions when there is clearly a dearth of knowledge and understanding about the NEET group – both in terms of its expanded age cohort, and its inclusion of both the EI and EA groups, which have been shown to have very different needs. Moreover, we have what appears to be a growing army of young people who, under the age of 18, have ‘unknown’ destinations – or who, over the age of 18, may have the classification of being NEET within the statistics, but fail to engage with the welfare system. This leads us to the conclusion that the extension of the umbrella term ‘NEET’ to cover a much wider age cohort has failed to be accompanied by an expansion in understanding about the characteristics and needs of young people who fall into this category; perhaps just as importantly, the wider implications for inclusion and policy responses has not been acknowledged.
Assumptions about young women who are NEET, have caring responsibilities and are likely to remain EI need to be challenged. Is the welfare system and its categorisation of individuals, based on criteria for benefit entitlement, labelling them for the convenience of the system, rather than seeking to design initiatives which engage with them and facilitate their easier access to education, employment and training? Also, while many young women may wish to spend time caring for their children or relatives and may not wish to feel under pressure to (re)join the labour market, this needs to be accompanied with access to appropriate support and intervention when it is required. As it stands, young parents are ‘left alone’ within the benefit system until their youngest child reaches the age of five and are then immediately expected to find work or training if they wish to claim benefits. They need sustained transitional support.
It was evident from the case studies that, at a local level, agencies providing support for the NEET group had established strong and effective partnership working to identify the young people’s needs and to develop local initiatives. More problematic was the short-term nature of funding for these initiatives, and, thus, an absence of long-term strategy or planning. Factors which were perceived to pose a threat to future support for excluded and marginalised young people were: a lack of programmes funded by central government; initiatives being reliant on short-term funding and with a variety of outcome measures; the impending removal of EU structural funds; and a growing reliance on charitable and philanthropic funding to support NEET intervention projects.
The term NEET and the inclusion of the terms EI and EA within it are in urgent need of reappraisal. Perhaps it is time to go back to the drawing board and to question whether ‘NEET’ continues to qualify and quantify the scale of social and economic exclusion among young people in Britain and, if it does, then what policy interventions can be delivered to address the whole population rather than selected sub-groups within it. Finally, questions must be asked about the appropriateness of using access to welfare support facilitated through registration with DWP as an adequate and effective mechanism to engage with young people who are NEET. The existing evidence would suggest that it is failing to meet the needs of many young people, particularly young women.
You can read the Summary Report and Full First Year Report on the Young Women's Trust website here.
Maguire, S and McKay, E. (2016) Young, Female and Forgotten? London: Young Women’s Trust (p.25)
 ONS (2016) Young People Not In Education, Employment or Training (NEET), UK: November 2016. Statistical Bulletin.