Despair of our 'lost teens'

STEVE DOWNES More than 1,700 forgotten Norfolk teenagers are in a “spiral of despair” with no job, education or training - and no real hope, a shocking report revealed last night.

STEVE DOWNES

More than 1,700 forgotten Norfolk teenagers are in a “spiral of despair” with no job, education or training - and no real hope, a shocking report revealed last night.

The report exposes a forgotten “underclass” of 16 to 18-year-olds who leave school but go on to do nothing - and run the risk of wasting their lives.

It came as the government championed its plans to raise the school leaving age to 18, and said young people who dropped out were more likely to abuse drugs, become prostitutes, commit crimes and end up in prison.

Now Norfolk education chiefs have turned the spotlight on the Neet generation (Not in Education, Employment or Training) and are drawing up plans to motivate them and get them back to the classroom or into work or training. They aim to reduce the number of young people with nothing to do from 1,700 to 1,000 by the end of next year.

Matthew Cunningham, communications manager for Connexions Norfolk, which works with 13 to 19-year-olds and commissioned the research, said: “Young people who don't stay in learning don't fulfil their potential. They can become an underclass.

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“They don't fully engage in society. If you are out of education, employment or training at 16-18, you are likely to remain there into adulthood. We do track people's progress through this age group, and we want to support them so they can fulfil their potential and make a contribution to society.”

He said it was estimated that the Neet youngsters would cost the country £16bn over the next 10 years in support, benefits and criminal justice.

The report's authors spoke to 70 young people from the group - and they shared some poignant tales of lives without hope. They included:

t Natalie, who planned to attend college after completing her GCSEs but clashed with her father and was thrown out of her home. She found it impossible to find regular work, with most employers rejecting her because she did not have the minimum of two years' experience.

t Christian, who started to take cannabis and class A drugs at the age of 14. Within a year he was excluded from school for smoking cannabis, which he continued to do at his new school. He did not get on with his teachers and was expelled aged 16.

A report to Norfolk County Council's children's services review panel on March 13 sets out the strategy to cut the number of 16 to 18-year-olds not in education, employment or training.

It says work will be focused on the areas of Norfolk where the problem is at its worst, including deprived parts of Norwich, Yarmouth, King's Lynn and Thetford.

Among the work planned is better training and learning provision, matching job vacancies more effect-ively with young people, and providing alternative school curriculum choices in hotspots like Norwich and Lynn.

The Connexions research, which appears to lend weight to the government's plan to make young people stay at school until they are 18, was supported last night by a survey showing 90pc of people agreed with extending compulsory education.

Education secretary Alan Johnson, speaking to the Sector Skills Development Agency, said raising the school leaving age had long-term benefits for individuals, society and the economy, plugging the skills gap and boosting life chances.

He said: “There's a spiral of despair for a significant minority which starts with disinterest at school, turns to disillusionment with society and ends up presenting huge problems for society.

“The evidence suggests that the younger a person leaves school, the more likely he or she will be to use drugs, become engaged in prostitution or commit crime; finally winding up in prison, unemployed or homeless - often all three.”

However, support for the plan among 16 to 24-year-olds was the lowest of any age group - 62pc said they agreed strongly that staying on to 18 was “a good idea”, while only 40pc were strongly in favour of changing the law to force teenagers to stay on.

If the move goes ahead as planned, it will begin from 2013, with children starting high school next year the first to be required to stay on for longer.