How to stop teenagers slipping through the gaps

  • How to stop teenagers slipping through the gaps

Despite the efforts of teachers, too many young people are still leaving school having been failed by the system, argues Amy Lalla…

I work with young people who are, in the words of education policy and politics, NEETs (not in education, employment or training). To me, they’re brilliant, inspiring kids, not a faceless acronym. But they have a problem. Their schooling has, let’s face it, not done much for them. They’ve left without meeting the all-important benchmark GCSE target and their employment opportunities are zilch. Most have had very tough lives and faced huge problems: they desperately need a second chance if they’re to get on track for a successful and fulfilled adult life.

So we scoop them up and put them through a 20-week course which embeds literacy and numeracy in sport, health and beauty, catering, or performing arts. The vast majority leave us to go on to college or work. We hold a graduation ceremony, and to see these young people’s delight in having achieved – to have ‘passed’ something, usually for the first time in their lives – is truly inspirational.

But let’s go back a couple of stages - because by the time these young people are labelled NEET, we’ve already failed them.

It’s in school that we can head off the next generation of NEETs. But how much more can we expect of teachers, faced with a never-ending reform programme, funding cuts, targets and a huge workload? Many schools already have robust systems in place to target the children who exhibit the telltale signs of underachievement. But I think there are eight key areas in which we should be focusing our efforts.

1. Parents must play their role

Let’s have universal guidelines for how parents should help their children with literacy before they even start school. Reading for pleasure is more important than either wealth or social class as an indicator of success at school, according to research. Yet only 40% of England’s ten year olds have a positive attitude to reading. The figure for Italy is 64% and 58% for Germany.

2. Learning styles: one size doesn’t fit all

It’s probably no coincidence that the vast majority of the students in our education centres are kinaesthetic learners. So in our classrooms breaks are plentiful and if students need to get up and stretch, that’s fine too. We know that this style of learning is difficult to accommodate in a class of 30, but forcing children to learn in a way that’s inimicable to them is wasted effort.

3. Moving on up: not always

In the UK, young people who fall behind in class are not kept behind in their year group. But if they haven’t grasped the basics, we are trying to build on very rocky foundations. And, most importantly, the lack of progress becomes someone else’s problem, which makes the likelihood of the students falling through one of the support gaps much greater.

4. Where are the stats?

The recent Commons Public Accounts Committee report told us that 100,000 NEETs have simply fallen off council radar. We don’t know who they are or where they are. This is an appalling state of affairs. We need a centralised, holistic service for all young people, with a database that can track engagement.

5. External mentors make the difference

In the schools we work in we often assign a mentor to children at risk. This allows them to talk to someone outside the school staff network, vent their frustrations and discuss how to manage and self-regulate themselves.

6. Don’t stint on praise

We find that if we are persistently positive, students’ confidence and self-esteem rises. Where there is self-belief, there is an opportunity to learn and achieve. Praise leads to increased resilience and higher achievement, and impacts on students’ beliefs about why they succeed or fail.

7. Make learning relevant: post-16 options

A young person who has no goals sees no reason to succeed at GCSE: they’re simply unable to see the relevance of qualifications to their future lives. Young people need to know what their options are post-16 - but this is a burden that can no longer fall on schools alone; we must have an expert, impartial careers service for all our young people.

8. Holiday help

The National Citizen Service (NCS) for 15-17-year-olds has been successful in giving young people the opportunity to be part of something at an important time of transition. What if schemes like this helped young people earlier? Summer schools target those who are vulnerable and at risk and give them a helping hand to settle into Year 7. The benefits are huge, yet many schools do not offer them. There is a gap in provision of this type for young people as they transition to GCSE study, too. The government is investing heavily in pupils’ character development - grit, determination, resilience – but there is a gap between the funded provision for Year 7s and NCS for Year 11s. This is a hole we need to fill.

We leave it too late at our peril. The next generation of NEETs are waiting in the wings.

About the author

Amy Lalla is director of youth training provider Let Me Play (