From education to employment

Is there a neat NEET solution?

The high numbers of young people not in employment, education or training continues to be a major headache for the government.  I read an article on the Department for Education website about the measures in place for increasing the participation of 16-24 year olds in education, training and employment. “Building engagement, building futures” describes how radical reforms of schools, vocational education, skills and welfare provision will make a significant difference to young people’s opportunities and support. I don’t know about you, but I have been involved in decades of ‘radical reforms’ aimed at improving life chances for young people – as far back as the Youth Opportunities Programme and countless others since.  I can’t think of any that produced long lasting  improvements.  More often than not, they  were dismantled and replaced with new programmes and initiatives, as new governments came into power.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said recently “Young people who have fallen through the net need tailored support to get back on track. We can’t treat them like round pegs being forced into square holes – if you’re young and have got to the point where you feel on the scrapheap, you need extra help to succeed in life.”  I wonder what net he was talking about.

According to the final report on last year’s riots, published by the Riots, Communities and Victims Panel earlier this year, young people do not see learning and skills as crucial to their future success. In their Neighbourhood Survey, only 43 per cent of residents thought that schools adequately prepared young people for work and life.  For the overwhelming majority of young people the experience of school is a positive one, with many examples of schools and wider education providers delivering impressive results. However, the Riots panel were told repeatedly that for some, most often those from the poorest socio-economic groups, education provision was not meeting their learning or wider social needs.

One of the concerns raised was the need to improve optimism about the future.  “Many young people the Panel met expressed a sense of hopelessness. However, others, sometimes in the same school class, expressed optimism, self-sufficiency and a belief that their circumstances could be overcome.” So for some young people, there is a disconnect between learning and success and some are experiencing greater negativity. Also, many young people the Panel met after the riots spoke of a lack of hopes and dreams for the future – particularly because they feel there is no clear path to work in an age of record youth unemployment.  Obviously the state of the economy is a contributory factor to an individual’s perception of future success, but not of their perception of the value of learning.

So what is the government putting into place to increase the sense of hope. In April 2011, the Social Mobility Strategy – Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers was launched. This strategy is about fairness of opportunity. It opens with ‘No one should be prevented from fulfilling their potential by the circumstances of their birth. What ought to count is how hard you work and the skills and talents you possess, not the school you went to or the jobs your parents did’. After dozens of pages outlining the problem and how the government knows the problem exists, chapter 4 sets out the strategy for the transition years, where the NEETs are found. In this chapter are the usual suspect interventions, including improving attainment at age 16, more reforms (eg, from Professor Alison Wolf’s review of vocational education), apprenticeships and more effective targeting of resources.

The launch of the Youth Contract aims to provide nearly half-a-million new opportunities for young people, including apprenticeships and work experience placements, with a substantial increase in the support and help available to young people through the Work Programme, Jobcentre Plus and Sector-Based Work Academies. Statutory guidance will be published on advice and guidance, including a face-to-face exploration of skills, abilities and interests that can help the at-risk to think through the learning and career options available to them. I am interested in how this might work in practice.

FE colleges are often a last resort for young people with poor attainment at the age of 16 and those who at-risk of non-participation.  A typical college’s student body now includes more people whose previous experience of education has been discouraging and who regard themselves as academically less able. They  are more likely to lack confidence in their skills and in their abilities, interpersonal effectiveness and lack the commitment required to be successful in their learning. They may feel unable to cope with the challenges created by learning. The pressure can often lead to a loss of emotional control.  Recent psychological research has looked at factors around confidence, challenge and change, emotional control and commitment, the  Four Cs, and the extent to which these impact on performance in a range of environments. The researchers identified a personality trait which they called mental toughness, and devised a questionnaire, MTQ48, which measures the ability to perform under pressure.

Mental toughness incorporates a range of personality characteristics such as persistence, resilience, hardiness, confidence and discipline. The Four Cs model provides a framework for measuring the strength of emotional flexibility, responsiveness, strength and resilience, some of the characteristics that would enable young people to be more successful in their endeavours.  With a strategy for developing mental toughness at the heart of its curriculum, colleges could address many of the broader issues affecting all learners, not just those who fall into the NEET category.

For example, a focus on building confidence would have benefits for the other dimensions. Public speaking is widely acknowledged as one of the most stress and anxiety inducing challenges people face.  The confidence to speak clearly and persuasively at interview is one of the key success factors in getting a job. A mental toughness development programme based on public speaking could be embedded in a range of subjects.  With teachers trained in mental toughness, the added benefit is for the teachers themselves. By administering the MTQ48 and devising specific development interventions, colleges can enhance the learning experience for more and more learners. Higher levels of mental toughness result in higher levels of engagement and the demonstration of positive behaviours, such as asking questions, engaging in discussions and speaking confidently in lessons.

The research that underpins mental toughness is substantial. Amongst other things, it shows that developing psychological or emotional resilience and mental toughness contributes substantially to the development of important life skills. As one Director of Children’s Services described it “Not only can we, in many cases, enhance a young person’s performance, mental toughness is useful for just about everything else that a young person is going to have to do in life.”

Prior to induction, the learners can complete the online questionnaire and a development report is generated which shows which areas of the Four Cs the individual has low scores and as part of a curriculum that covers what the learner actually wants to learn, tutorial sessions can be tailored to address those dimensions. A series of carefully designed activities help the learner to progressively build their capacity to deal with challenge and change. Incorporating elements of drama and performing arts, learners can learn to express themselves clearly, developing self-confidence and emotional self-control.  The use of the questionnaire helps tutors to target the support. It is very accurate at predicting which students are most at risk of underperforming, dropping out or failing to complete their course of study. Findings from a number of studies show there is a clear link between a young person’s behaviour in the classroom and their levels of mental toughness. Improvements to a student’s mental toughness translates to better attendance and to positive and active participation in classes.

Colleges in Scotland have been using the measure in the past couple of years and several english colleges will be using it with their learners in the coming months. It will be interesting to see what impact it has on learner success. My own feeling is that it will give tutors a framework for focussing on developing the right kinds of attitudes and mental routines to not only help learners to cope with college life, but also to prepare them for the tough world of work.

Bert Buckley is director of Icaras Consulting, which is dedicated to helping organisations, individuals and teams achieve outstanding performance by identifying and releasing hidden talent and latent capability

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