Labour came to power in 1997 having savagely criticised the Conservatives for their ineffective policies towards disengaged young people. Determined to tackle this problem, within 2 years it had published two flagship pieces of policy making - the Social Exclusion Unit report "Bridging the Gap" and the report of Policy Action Team 12.
A raft of major changes have flowed from these 2 reports - the Learning Gateway, Education Maintenance Award pilots, Life Skills, "New Start" pilots, the Children's Fund. Within Government, a cross-departmental body - the Children and Young People's Unit has been established. In the field, the Careers and Youth services are being transformed into the new Connexions Service - charged with an unambiguous remit to concentrate on helping the most disadvantaged young people with a seamless and unified set of services.
Despite all this, the number of young people aged 16-18 not in education, employment or training has risen to 217,000 according to the latest analysed data from the Labour Force Survey - about 8% of the whole age group.
In marked contrast to the circumstances of 18-24 year olds helped by the New Deal - where the total not engaged in learning or employment has declined by over 75% - the equivalent number of 16-18 year olds remained almost static throughout the 1997-2001 Parliament. Over the period from 1996-7 to 2000-01, the number of 16 to 18 year-olds not in education, employment or training rose from 208,000 to 217,000 - an increase of 5%. A demographic factor partly underlies the increase - the whole 16 to 18 population grew by 3% over this 4 year period.
Frustratingly the numbers of non-employed, non-learning young people seem to be unresponsive to almost any policy changes and have proved stubbornly unmoved by rapid growth in the labour market. The stubbornly stable size of this group suggests that a more decisive intervention is required - not least because a significant proportion of the 16-18 NEET population will quite rapidly become eligible for New Deal.
Clearly more needs to be done - particularly to engage the hardest-to-help categories of young people who leave the learning system at age 16 and who fail to make any effective engagement with the labour market.
More also needs to be done because the Government's policy agenda is intently focused on boosting young peoples' participation and achievement in learning and skills. One of its key goals is to raise the proportion of 19 year-olds achieving VQ level 2 from 75% to 85% by the end of 2004. Making good this 10 percentage point deficit in less than 36 months will be exceptionally tough - not least because the educational participation rate of 16-18 year olds has been inching downwards in recent years.
Yet the one policy change which could easily reverse these trends has not been openly considered - wholesale reform to the system of financial support. Financial support to young people should be conceived as part of the entitlement to learn not a concession within social security.
Evidence from the Education Maintenance Award pilot areas shows a 5% increase in participation and there is a strong case for extending these to the remaining two thirds of the country that are untested. The DfES seems certain to press for new funding to achieve this in the Treasury's current spending round. Whilst this national roll-out is necessary, it is not sufficient. Three other reforms are needed.
Firstly, a more consistent financial support regime is required to remove or reduce the financial disincentives or anomalies that skew choices made by young people at age 16. Recognising that the "structure of financial support for individuals in this age range needs fundamental reappraisal" the Bridging the Gap report criticised the "confusing and complicated" system. This involved eight different agencies "paying eight different kinds of support - depending on whether a young person is in learning, the kind of institution they attended, and whether or not they lived with their parents, had children themselves or were sick or disabled. In particular, it acknowledged the arguments that low levels of support– £30–40 a week – are too low to keep young people from poor families in education, and that some of the most vulnerable young people – those who have left home in a crisis situation – get no support at all.
Secondly, the concept of an "Education" maintenance award should not be restricted to college-based learning. A broader definition of learning is required in order to help the 30 to 40 thousand young people who participate in vocational learning that does not fit-in to a Modern Apprenticeship framework or attract an employee-based wage. The tax and benefits disincentives faced by these young people should also be harmonised. Unlike their peers in school or college, the parents of these young people do not receive Child Benefit or if they are on state benefits (Income Support or Jobseeker's Allowance) they cannot receive a dependants allowance for each child and contribution towards housing costs.
Thirdly, a unified learning allowance must be sufficiently flexible to support highly marginalised and vulnerable young people. Labour inherited a clumsy and complicated apparatus of social security payments to young people in "severe hardship". Sadly the Government's advisors still regard this hard-to-claim system of last-resort as merely income maintenance. It does not try to remove obstacles or incentivise young people to re-enter work or learning.
These suggested reforms are not intended - by stealth - to recreate the pre-1988 social security safety net. Eligibility should be based on need and initially assessed against parental income. It should be a "something for something" deal where continued receipt is conditional on jobsearch or learning activity. It should incorporate bonus payments for progression and achievement. And unlike means tested income maintenance, young people should be allowed to keep the earnings from regular part time employment up to a maximum threshold.
When it comes to changing behaviour, there's nothing like money.