Every year, more than one in ten teenagers in the UK ends up not in education, employment or training (NEET) after leaving compulsory education. Although this figure is falling year on year, it remains a challenge to keep disaffected young people engaged and motivated.
A new study from National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) has analysed how school-based programmes can help students who are at risk of dropping out to become better engaged with school. In every case, the participants had been identified by teachers as requiring particular intervention because they were unhappy, had negative feelings towards education and lacked positivity about their future.
What emerged was that of the 41 students in five schools followed between 2013 and 2015, 33 remained in education despite concerns about them in Year 9. Furthermore, they had acquired key skills that prepared them for work. They also saw that what they were doing at school was relevant to the work of work, and showed improved communication and teamwork skills. Their attitudes to learning and attendance were also enhanced
The key elements that were common to the support programmes included mentoring, group support, relevance to work and flexibility, which gave the students control over their work.
At Great Barr School, in Birmingham, a programme of support was developed that involved academic learning alongside off-site qualifications and work experience. The 20 Year 10 and 11 participants were assigned a dedicated team of professionals to work with, and were given a flexible timetable over the two years that resulted in most of their time being spent in school, but included off-site experience, mainly in the retail sector.
School attendance among the participants increased from around 80% to 89% over the period, and it was observed that they ‘gained patience and maturity’. The students themselves reported that the work experience they attended was valuable in allowing them to discover what career path to take. One said: “It has helped me grow as a person and to mature in a work-based environment”. Another admitted: “It helped me realise school is key and education is a thing that will help you move forward.”
The programme at Great Barr School, which is a registered ASDAN centre, was also found to be cost-effective. Previously, the school has spent £250,000 or so a year on alternative provision for hard-to-reach pupils, but this support programme cost less than £150,000 and was more effective. Most of the pupils engaged in the programme were continuing with their education post-GCSEs.
At Kings Lynn Academy in Norfolk, meanwhile, also an ASDAN centre, young people at risk of falling into the NEET category participated in an online programme called Do Something Different (DSD), which was developed by psychologists at the University of Hertfordshire. This included an initial assessment of each student’s behavioural habits, which informed the selection of a range of ‘do’ tasks suited to the needs of that young person. Three of these tasks were sent by email or text to the participant three times a week for six weeks.
The tasks were suggested actions that students should try for a day – such as sitting in a different chair in a class, or trying not to complain about anything for a day. The idea was to encourage them to cope with situations that fell outside their comfort zone and would, over time, improve self-esteem, mood and anxiety, while at the same increasing attainment. Participants reported that they enjoyed completing their ‘dos’ as these differed from their usual routine, and that it helped them to acquire new, transferable skills. A key part of the programme was group work, where participants were encouraged to work together with others, which improved their social and communication skills, and gave them an opportunity to voice their opinions.
One student told the NFER researchers Tami McCrone and Susie Bamford: “Being involved in DSD helped me to feel more positive and to feel comfortable talking to more people. I enjoyed having the opportunity to try something different which also allowed me to learn about my strengths and weaknesses." Crucially, the young people reported feeling more positive about education and wanting to achieve in life. All seven participants met or exceeded their expected GCSEs and went on to college.
The authors concluded:
There is a compelling case to engage young people in learning, and enable them to see the value of learning to their futures, before they are 16 years old. To do this we need to identify effective methods to encourage and motivate young people, at risk of becoming disengaged from learning, at an earlier age. The evidence in this report identifies some interesting support programmes that appear to work to re-engage young people at risk. It is essential that we invest more to further develop these approaches so that we successfully re-engage young people in learning and reduce the considerable number who are currently NEET.
Carole Willis, the NFER’s CEO, said: “NFER has a wealth of experience in carrying out contracted research on education-related issues but we felt that finding ways to reduce the large numbers of young people who are NEET was of such importance that we needed to fund this initial research ourselves.
“It is our hope that other organisations will want to collaborate on quantitative research that could further help to inform policy and target resources so that all young people can have better experiences at school and fulfil their potential.”