How to stop students from becoming NEET…

Written by: Fleur Sexton |

Published: 07 September 2020

What is it that puts a young person on the path to becoming NEET? And how can schools intervene to reduce this risk? Fleur Sexton advises

The Children’s Commissioner recently warned that “the coronavirus crisis could see a lost generation of vulnerable teenagers falling through gaps in the school and social care systems” (2020; see also SecEd, 2020).

Meanwhile, youth unemployment soared by 122 percent between March and July 2020 according to the Office for National Statistics and 770,000 young people were reported to be NEET (not in education, employment or training).

Unravel underlying issues

Low self-confidence, poor prior attainment, a limited support network, and vulnerability are common factors among NEETs – issues that are often triggered by adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) or traumatic events occurring before age 18, including abuse, neglect, parental mental illness, substance use, divorce, incarceration, and domestic violence. These young people have often stopped trusting in others and have limited opportunities they can actually access.

School leaders need to identify and break-down these barriers if they are to rewire those at risk and set them on a path towards a more positive future. A developmental approach to learning new behaviours is absolutely crucial. Often the reasons for the issues are complex and it is essential to support those staff responsible for helping these young people to unravel them.

Keith Fraser, chair of the Youth Justice Board, wrote in a recent Guardian article (Pidd, 2020) of the “veil of complexity”, which often prevents those working with children at risk from grasping the nettle and dismantling the core underlying issues.

However complex these issues are staff, must be committed to delving deep into the root causes if they are to fix them, rather than looking only at the symptoms (which often present as challenging and inappropriate behaviour).

Include, don’t exclude

Social exclusion – and in particular school exclusion – is one of the main reasons why social mobility is an issue for so many families in our society. School should be the place where we can redress this imbalance. Data analysis from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) shows that once a child is excluded, they are twice as likely to be taught by an unqualified teacher or a supply teacher – this exacerbates existing issues rather than resolving them (Gill et al, 2017).

Senior leaders also need to be aware of the social cost of exclusion in terms of health, qualifications, employment and criminality. The IPPR report found that “every cohort of permanently excluded pupils will go on to cost the state an extra £2.1 billion in education, health, benefits and criminal justice. Yet more pupils are being excluded, year-on-year”.

It is really important that school leaders evaluate their discipline and behaviour policies to maximise chances of success for all pupils by focusing on the positive outcomes and behaviours desired.

“Behavioural issues” are generally borne out of fear and background of vulnerability. By the same token, pupils who behave in inappropriate ways may be masking underlying issues and should be regarded as vulnerable children who require additional support.

Headteachers can be instrumental in stopping this negative cycle and taking the pressure off students by prioritising inclusion and removing the threat of exclusion and ensuring that all staff are completely on board with the best practice concept of using positive reinforcement to encourage desired behaviours.

This involves adopting a “can-do” mindset – looking for opportunities to give verbal praise, rewarding small steps rather than waiting for big achievements, and tailoring rewards to each individual pupil so they are meaningful. Explaining to a student why they have earned praise is key to making this a very effective strategy.

Improve training and communication

A nationwide survey of UK schools (The Root of It, 2019) found that more than one in two senior leaders felt their staff were not confident in meeting the social, emotional and mental health needs of their pupils, while four in 10 schools felt their staff were unable to identify the underlying causes of behaviour difficulties.

By providing teachers with training in child development and mental health, school leaders can equip staff with the skills to recognise behaviour linked to mental ill-health and complex needs, and initiate appropriate intervention. Staff need to be aware of the full range of intervention options available and how to refer students for support – including outside agencies – to achieve the best possible outcomes.

Good communication and sharing information at regular and well-structured staff meetings ensures that everyone is “on the same page” and will enable staff to be consistent and effective in their approach to supporting pupils.

While training is essential, it is also very important to recognise the value of staff who are “experts by experience” and have a real understanding of why so many young people end up NEET.

Review the school culture

A “child-first” approach embedded firmly within the school culture is vital if we are to resolve these issues.

Empathy must be the key driver. Pupils who have been excluded often feel judged and looked down upon because of the poor choices they may have made in the past. Teaching is never about telling students what to do – it is about co-creating a future using techniques and behaviours which are likely to deliver positive outcomes.

It is also important that staff cater to different learning styles. Some children – including those with additional needs – learn more effectively when they are practically engaged in “hands-on” activities. Identifying a student’s learning style early on is important, as is adapting the teaching style to suit – it is an excellent preventative measure.

Some students achieve the best outcomes by learning in an alternative provision such as a special school or another non-mainstream environment – this should always be presented as a different path with real opportunities and not as a second rate option.

Providing students with a wide range of strong role models helps them aspire to positive futures. When dealing with inappropriate behaviour, senior leaders must lead by example and always focus on finding solutions rather than dwelling on which rule has been broken.

Embrace outside support

Strong partnerships between schools and outside agencies who offer a fresh professional perspective on the current issues faced by schools can do much to help resolve any issues they might face. “It takes a whole village to bring up a child” especially when it comes to mental health, complex social deprivation and safeguarding issues.

Low confidence is rife in students at risk of becoming NEET so it is important that schools find a way for students to give back to their community, re-engage young people and boost their self-esteem. When they learn that they can help the elderly or the homeless through practical volunteering projects and change the world for the better, they realise that they too can use these skills to help themselves.

Rewire communities

The fallout from Covid-19 has further deepened the divide between rich and poor and strengthened pre-existing lines of inequality. As a new year begins, schools are faced with new and complex mental health issues and an increasing attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their non-disadvantaged peers. This imbalance will need to be addressed when children return to school and there will be many “behavioural issues” which cannot be resolved through exclusion.

Schools must play their part by making opportunities available to all and by dismantling the barriers to positive futures. Social inclusion must sit firmly at the heart of school culture to lay the right foundations for a new and better society based not just on equity, but on justice.

Tips for preventing students from becoming NEET

  • Always translate anger as fear and understand that people who fear that they are going to fail sometimes want the failure to happen sooner rather than later.
  • Look for the reasons behind the behaviour in order to find the best solutions to help that young person.
  • Implement an early intervention that meets a student’s individual needs.
  • Acknowledge the impact on staff and the effect on other learners and find solutions.
  • Harness expertise and support from outside agencies.
  • Recruit staff diversely to provide students with different role models and wide-ranging experience and expertise.
  • Re-evaluate opportunities offered to students and ensure they are truly accessible to all.
  • Remember that the trauma of exclusion typically leads to further isolation from society.
  • Always ensure you offer a route back in.

Further information & resources

  • Children’s Commissioner: Teenagers falling through the gaps, July 2020:
  • Gill et al: Making the difference: Breaking the link between school exclusion and social exclusion, IPPR, October 2017:
  • Pidd: Youth Justice Board chair aims to tackle racial disparities in criminal justice system in England and Wales, The Guardian, July 2020:
  • SecEd: Covid-19: Vulnerable teens may “never return to education”, July 2020:
  • The Root of It: Mental health and wellbeing in UK schools survey, April 2019:

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