Monday, 24 December 2012

Engaging the disengaged

a publication in NFER’s Research programme by Kelly Kettlewell, Clare Southcott, Eleanor Stevens and Tami McCrone

Executive summary


Over recent years, public awareness of the number of young people described as being not in education, employment or training (NEET) has grown. However, the NEET group is heterogeneous and young people falling into this group have a vast array of characteristics, needs, attributes and ambitions. Research by Spielhofer et al. (2009) presented a statistical segmentation of the NEET classification, and identified three broad subgroups: sustained; open to learning; and undecided NEETs. Over three-fifths of NEET young people fall into the ‘open to learning’ or ‘undecided’ categories yet, due to their lack of multiple complex barriers to engagement, these young people could be prevented from becoming NEET if targeted by the right intervention early on (Audit Commission, 2010). This would allow valuable post-16 resources to be targeted more specifically towards the much smaller sustained group of NEET young people.

However, despite this evidence, few studies identify interventions that are most effective with young people at risk of becoming open to learning or undecided NEET. NFER is attempting to address this gap through this project, and other related work in its From Education to Employment research activities.

This research project aims to build on the recent series of reviews undertaken through the From Education to Employment research programme1 by examining the impact of interventions that are in place to support students aged 14-16 who are at risk of temporary disconnection from learning. The research is based on six case-study schools with different support programmes for Year 10 students. Schools were visited in the summer term of 2012. Interviews were undertaken with staff involved in the programme and focus groups were held with students. This is the first report in a longitudinal project that will track these students through to post-compulsory destinations.

Key Findings

Schools’ support programmes included more than one approach to support students at risk of disengagement

The majority of the programmes integrated two or more approaches to preventing disengagement, such as employer involvement, alternative curricula and careers guidance. All programmes had an element of personalised careers information, advice and guidance.

Many of the programmes involved employers, but the level of employer engagement varied considerably. Approaches tended to have a relatively high staff to student ratio.

Programmes were targeting those students showing characteristics associated with being at risk of temporary disconnection from learning

Schools had adopted a formalised approach to identifying students; however this often included a mix of ‘hard’ outcome measures and ‘softer’ behavioural or attitudinal measures. The majority of students selected for the extra support were either not achieving their potential academically or had mild behavioural issues, or a combination of these factors. This reflects the findings of previous research that young people at risk of temporary disconnection tend not to have complex needs and therefore may not be picked up by traditional Risk of NEET Indicators (Filmer-Sankey and McCrone, 2012).

Students generally had a positive view of school. However, they also recognised that they were not necessarily always well behaved. Students were positive about their future careers after completing their compulsory education or training and were particularly interested in progressing into work-based learning.

Both staff and students felt the support programmes were effective

Effective elements of programmes were perceived to be:
  • relationships between learners and staff;
  • one-to-one support;
  • practical hands-on application;
  • flexibility of the programme in meeting students’ needs; and
  • small class sizes with high adult to student ratio.
Students involved in work-based learning welcomed opportunities to prepare for the world of work and become job ready. Students involved in mentoring-related support valued the advice and guidance they had received about progression opportunities and the ability to keep track of their grades.

Students were showing signs of benefiting from the programmes in their first year of support

The support programmes resulted in a range of soft impacts including an improvement in students’ attitudes towards learning; increased confidence, self esteem and motivation; raised aspirations and students feeling better informed about future career paths. Hard impacts for current students included improved attendance at school and increased achievement, including achievement in literacy and numeracy. Staff reported that hard impacts for young people in previous years included progression into apprenticeships, employment or further study.

The evidence suggests that support programmes also impacted on staff in terms of knowledge and skills development and the opportunity to develop professionally.


Overall, in the first year of delivery with this cohort, staff and learners were positive about the support that had been provided and, in all cases, the support appeared to be having some level of the intended impact on the students.

The evidence shows that a range of different support programmes have been delivered to prevent students from disconnecting from education including mentoring schemes to improve engagement, extended work experience and alternative provision with a vocational focus. The content of the support varied, highlighting that a ‘one size fits all’ approach may not be appropriate for these students.

Despite this variation, it is apparent that some aspects of support work particularly well with these students including one-to-one support; personalised and flexible provision, practical or vocational elements and employer engagement.

The characteristics displayed by students involved in the support programmes are those associated with students who become temporarily NEET (Spielhofer et al., 2009). Schools recognise that they cannot use just hard measures (such as attainment or attendance) to identify these particular young people as it is a combination of factors that puts them at risk of disengagement. Schools may, therefore, value a comprehensive list of indicators to identify young people at risk of becoming NEET, and the reasons why they are likely to disengage. Only by understanding the reasons why can the appropriate intervention be put into place (Filmer-Sankey and McCrone, 2012).

Next steps

Based on the evidence, the programmes of support do appear to be having a positive impact on learners in the short-term. In order to determine the longer-term success of these approaches, we will monitor their progress over the next two years as the young people move from compulsory education to post-compulsory destinations.

From September 2012, schools will have new responsibilities for careers education, information, advice and guidance (CE/IAG). This is likely to impact on the interventions that schools deliver. Therefore, in order to ascertain the impact, we will undertake a similar study starting in March 2013, with a focus on new initiatives, tracking students from 2013 to 2017.

Together with a parallel research study we are undertaking that is looking at producing a comprehensive list of NEET indicators which will help to identify not only the likelihood of becoming NEET but also the reasons why, the outputs of these projects will helps schools to identify the type of young person at risk of NEET and the appropriate intervention for preventing this outcome.

1 Please see:

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