In a cramped office in the Central Foundation for Boys School, just off the Old Street roundabout in London's East End, Ripha Begum is at the heart of a pilot project that its backers believe can help to stem the flow of young people falling out of employment or the education system at a critical stage of their careers.
On Friday, the Work Foundation published new research showing that large numbers of the UK's youth are falling out of education and training early in their careers and failing to integrate fully with the workforce. These "Neets" - people not in education, employment or training - are concentrated in small areas of the country, with some northern towns approaching 25% of 16-24 year olds out of work or education, the think tank said. Faced with a combination of high unemployment - nearly 2.6m on October's figures - and spending cuts hitting youth services, this cohort faces a difficult future.
Begum's programme nearly became a victim of local authority cutbacks. Originally based in the Mulberry School for girls in Tower Hamlets, she was made redundant earlier in the year, until funding from the Private Equity Foundation (PEF), a philanthropic organisation based in the City, stepped in to fund it, renaming it Think Forward and moving her down the road to the Central Foundation School as part of a scaled-up pilot that will take in 15 schools across Shoreditch.
Think Forward puts "responsible adults" in schools to build connections with pupils who are falling behind, looking into their home lives and their concerns and trying to understand their aspirations, Begum said. Rather than working for a few weeks or months, it spans up to five years of a pupil's life. Its effectiveness can be measured in the effect of its brief hiatus.
On Friday morning, Halima Ahmed starts an apprenticeship at a creche, gaining her first professional experience in working with children. Originally in sixth form studying health and social sciences, Ahmed dropped out during Ripha's three month absence. Bright and articulate, behavioural and absentee issues had undermined her results and seen her drop out of subjects. After finishing one year of her course, she did not make the grade and was not allowed to progress. She tried the local authority Connexions service, but got nowhere.
"I did short courses, so I didn’t get five GCSEs, I got four and a half. I wanted to stay… but they kind of gave up hope in me in year 11. They said someone else who’s better than you can have this place. They just let me go. Mainly because I was falling behind," Ahmed said. "In that time I was on the internet applying for things, I was going into Connexions, giving them my GCSEs, waiting for them to get back to me and say they’d found something for me, but nothing happened. They put you on the system and say they’ll call you back if they’ve found anything. They just don’t call you."
"Think Forward came in and rescued us in September, but that’s a crucial time for the transition, we were made redundant and we weren’t in contact with the young people," Begum said. "That’s when Haleema did not get through… they needed that support and they didn’t have it."
Back on task, Begum intervened and helped Ahmed find an apprenticeship.
Hackney London is high up on the Work Foundation's list of black spots, and the area's problem is significant enough and diverse enough to provide a good test bed for the programme, Shaks Ghosh, the CEO of the Private Equity Foundation, said. A third of the schools are in Tower Hamlets, a third are in Hackney and a third in Islington.
"You could not find three London boroughs where the Neet profile is as different as these three London boroughs," Ghosh said. "In South Islington the problem is white boys who just won’t learn – no role models. In Hackney, the problem is churn. Every year there is a new community, there are new languages in the schools. The local authority services can’t keep up with this great churn of migrants that is going on. In Tower Hamlets you’ve got this very densely populated Bengali community that very often is very inward looking. It’s not a mixed community anymore. "
There are, Ghosh noted, commonalities, which go beyond a simple lack of job opportunities. "Intergenerational worklessness you see everywhere. Parents whose own experiences of school were either nonexistent or negative. They’re the key things that you have everywhere," she said.
This is a feature of post-industrial towns, as the Work Foundation's report said. Former mill towns have lost their economic purpose, and higher skilled workers have tended to migrate. Even prior to the recession, long term unemployment was a feature of these areas.
“A lot of these cities have experienced industrial decline and will experience several generations of joblessness," Neil Lee, senior economist at the Work Foundation and author of the report. "A lot of these cities were there because of the industrial revolution. Their economic rationale was coal or wool.”
The recession has hit cities such as Grimsby, Doncaster and Warrington and Wigan, harder than it has hit the South, meaning that what opportunities there were have been further diminished. All three areas have nearly 25% of 16-24 year olds classified as Neet. Intergenerational joblessness is a major contributor, according to Lee.
“A lot of places, particularly places where more people are unemployed, there are fewer role models, people are less aware of what opportunities there are,” he said.
Long term unemployment early in an individual's working life has been shown to cause long term "scarring" effects on a section of a generation. The feed through from periods of high unemployment in the 1980s is still evident, with people failing to fully attach to the workforce and experiencing lower wages, less secure jobs and poorer psychological wellbeing for much of their lives.
With a convulsion of violence emanating from deprived areas of the capital this summer, including Hackney, the problem has become clear - and is not just another statistic reflecting the country's economic gloom.
Funding for social and educational projects is limited, but the Work Foundation said that better coordination between services, as well as better tracking of progress, could improve assistance to Neets. Sometimes services are being duplicated, Lee said, and investing now in coordination could have an impact. A focus on prevention would also help, with the most at risk allocated the most resources, and with targeted case management - like that offered by Think Forward - given to those with the greatest vulnerability.
Creating better links into employment and apprenticeships would help, the report said but the focus on the latter has mainly been on getting young people into them, without much focus on their quality or on their sustainability.
Begum's experience on the ground is that apprenticeships in the most part - those that are there at all - still require a level of academic attainment that many Neets have not achieved.
“There are no quick fixes," Lee acknowledges. "Otherwise we would have thought of them.”
The success of the Think Forward scheme depends on the ability to scale, and although "cloning Ripha" was one option on the table, the PEF has turned to the professional services firm Ernst and Young to "codify what Ripha does," Ghosh said. "What kind of a person do we really need here? What kind of background do they have? What they’ve done is identified the skillset that is necessary to do this job. You can’t just have teaching skills, you can’t just have social work skills. We now have a training programme and an assessment centre."
Both Begum and Ghosh are quick to defend schools and teachers who are tied by funding cuts and attainment targets.
"I would never blame a school, because actually they do very well by 90% of their kids," Ghosh adds. "There are universal services, and very often they give the best services to the kids that are hungry for it, who turn up there and understand what it’s all about. The Think Forward programme is targeted at the 10-15% of young people who are most disadvantaged or for whom the universal services are not working."