NEET study reveals poor school engagement

Neil Kaye Middlesex UniversityResearch Assistant Neil Kaye is part of a team from the Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC) at Middlesex University conducting an FP7 project on Early School Leaving. The initial phase of the research looking at school children has unveiled some intriguing findings and the team is now looking to hear from school teachers to help understand these results.

At the start of 2015, there were 943,000 young people (aged 16-24) in the UK not in education, employment or training (NEET). This figure has stayed close to the one million mark for much of the last decade and throughout the economic crisis from which the UK and other Western countries are currently in the process of rebuilding.

  • Why are so many young people still facing tough school-to-work transitions?
  • What are the underlying causes?
  • Why does this issue still persist, despite the government’s focus on key initiatives such as apprenticeships and training schemes?

These are the questions that the SPRC set out to address as part of a five-year EU-funded project ( looking at the educational trajectories and experiences of young people across nine European countries.

The focus of our research is not only on the young people themselves but also on their schools and the policy initiatives that affect their pathways through education. Several stages of research therefore seek to incorporate the views and expertise of a number of stakeholders, including policy makers, education and skills professionals and, of course, teachers.

Elizabeth Albert - Creative Commons 2.0
Photo by Elizabeth Albert (Creative Commons 2.0)

While the first stage of the research took place with young people still in education, students’ level of school engagement is widely recognised as an early-warning sign towards eventual dropout, under-qualification or NEET-hood. Disengagement from school may take a number of forms, such as:

  • Lack of attention in the classroom
  • Lack of effort in homework
  • Lack of participation in school activities
  • Feeling marginalised
  • Feeling apathetic towards school.

Over time, this can result in poor attendance and low attainment. Previous literature associates disengagement in the UK with young men, ethnic minorities, those from single-parent families and those in lower socio-economic status households. However, our findings suggest a somewhat different picture.

While much has been written on these issues as relating primarily to young boys and students from BME backgrounds, the results from our survey suggest that it is girls and white British pupils who are reporting higher levels of disengagement from school.

Students’ survey

In the UK, a survey of students was administered to more than 3,000 participants in Years 10 and 12 during the spring and summer terms in 2013/14. The schools and FE colleges who collaborated with our research were situated in two highly-urbanised areas of the country with high levels of youth unemployment: London and Tyne & Wear.

Although our sample is not intended to be representative of the UK student body as a whole, our data comprise an intriguing area study looking into the specific contexts of the 17 partner schools and colleges who took part in the research.

Key findings

Preliminary findings from our survey indicate that:

  • Girls were almost twice as likely as boys to score low on school engagement
  • Students with a migrant background were 1.5 times less likely than those without a migrant background to report low scores for school engagement
  • White British students were more than 1.5 times more likely to be disengaged from school than those with a black and minority ethnic background (BME)
  • While aspirations were higher among girls than boys, there was a stronger correlation between these aspirations and attainment levels for boys
  • Perceived levels of teacher support and parental support were highly correlated with the extent to which a student is engaged with their school career.

While much has been written on these issues as relating primarily to young boys and students from BME backgrounds, the results from our survey suggest that it is girls and white British pupils who are reporting higher levels of disengagement from school. The gender and ethnicity dimensions highlighted in these findings are just two of several we are exploring in greater depth in the next stages of the project.

Next steps – Teachers’ survey

With the importance of teachers in the school lives of their students reaffirmed by these findings, this next stage of the project involves a wide-scale survey of school staff across the UK. We are very keen to harness the professional expertise of teachers in all types of secondary schools and colleges and to understand from their perspective the part they can play in helping young people – and particularly those at risk of becoming NEET – through school and beyond. Our findings will be shared among policy makers and eminent educationalists both in the UK and across Europe and we don’t want teachers to miss the opportunity to have their voices heard.

If you know anyone who works in a secondary school, please urge them to contribute to this important stage of the research. They can access the questionnaire via this link: Teachers Survey UK.