When you look at data, the figures are large, but they turn into rows of numbers on a website. Wasn't it wonderful news that the number of NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training) in England dropped in 2011? That must mean that we have some sort of brilliant system that supports those who, for some reason or another, don't have anything to go into after they get their GCSEs. In 2011 only 958,000 young people were classed at NEET, according to the Guardian datablog. Brilliant.
The trouble with the numbers, as always, is that they hide the human face behind the acronym. The NEET discussion is not about people, with lives and circumstances, it is a political football used to score points across a debate chamber. The NEET figures are a measuring stick for success for men in suits in Westminster, when ironically, the figures are a damning indictment of their inherent failure to address the issue with any real gusto.
Yes, there is a strategy for NEETs - one Google search and you're there, reading Deputy Prime Minister's reassuring speeches about how we need to treat people like individuals - "We can't treat them like round pegs being forced into square holes - if you're young and have got to the point where you feel on the scrapheap, you need extra help to succeed in life," he says. Always an analogy without a real directive, without a real answer to the problem. Government data on NEETs shows that the number of 16 year old NEETs pales in comparison to the number of NEETs who are over 18. These "round pegs", if they aren't dealt with properly at 16 or 17 - the age at which you qualify for help as a NEET - then there is nothing. The void widens and swallows you whole. That's when not even an acronym can save you.
Meet a former student of mine - let's call her Kim, for the sake of her anonymity. Kim is highly intelligent - and through no fault of her own, is unemployed. She dropped out of her A-Level course - not because she wasn't smart enough to complete it, it's just that the odds were entirely stacked against her from the start. At 12, she lost her father to a drug overdose. She managed to pick herself up again. At 14, she realised that she was gay. Her strict Greek family - with a mother that didn't ever really cope with being a single parent - rejected her sexuality and her identity. She was in and out of counselling, Connexions tried to help her. She self harmed, she threatened to commit suicide. She picked herself up again.
At 16, she got her GCSEs - a decent set, considering her recent history. At one point, we discussed where she was to live. She was offered temporary accommodation, but had to leave because of the cockroaches and drug addicts - at 16 years old, that's a not a life to be exposed to. After months of uncertainty, she moved back in with her mother - with whom her relationship was fragile at best.
The Sixth Form college she was at decided that she could not study her A-Levels anymore - citing her difficult behaviour and her lack of attendance. They missed the fact that she had no money, no way of getting there, nowhere to live. She dropped out and looked for work. For the past three years, she has been odd-jobbing in coffee shops and milkshake bars - part time, minimum wage. She lives alone after her partner left her for good one day. She doesn't think she can afford the rent and her mother has said that she cannot go home again - it's time to stand on your own two feet, Kim.
She is 20 and very much alone in the world and yet still young enough to achieve something and to be directed to a better life. Her daily trips to the Job Centre are soul-destroying. She fills in forms for whatever work she can get. There is no return. The fact is that she is a 20 year old woman, with no extended family who can help her, with a history of depression and rejection. Just because she isn't 17 anymore doesn't mean that as a society, we should abandon her to the clutches of a city that will, eventually, eat her alive.
And why can't she get a job? That's what people really think, isn't it? She must be choosy - she must be illiterate, she must be lazy. The thoughts aren't spoken aloud, but one look at the press and you see the attitude to unemployed young people - the scroungers, the lazy, the entitled, the leeches. The dailymailification of our opinions means that we overlook the reality behind the tags we so easily give to those less fortunate than us. Ann was always at risk of becoming a a NEET, even though she was literate and intelligent - and someone missed it. Her family history marked her out, her mental health marked her out, her sexuality marked her out and most shockingly, in the 21st century, her gender marked her out. The statistics show that for the past ten years, girls are much more likely to be NEET than boys.
Some people are sympathetic to the plight of the young without jobs. But asking them to put their money where their mouth is becomes a litmus test of their ability to truly empathise. A weekend job request is met with: "But, she'll want a full time job eventually and we'll have trained her up and then we'll lose her to something else," or "Is minimum wage going to really support her? She should try and get something that pays more." All understandable - a small business cannot prop up the parts of society that are broken. If you are 20 and still looking to forge a career, there are very few options. Particularly if you are a woman. Apprenticeships are widely touted as the solution - anyone who has ever tried to get one will know that the competition for places is fierce and often not available outside of large cities.
There is a huge gap in government policy when it comes to slightly older NEETs. A sustainable and wide-ranging scheme to employ young people who are no longer 16 or 17 is absolutely essential. Some may argue that these schemes exist - and there are initiatives available to encourage youth employment. The problem comes when small businesses aren't kept in the loop about the schemes - how many people actually know about youth employment schemes and the available funding? A straw poll of local businesses will give you that answer straight away. Is it not in our interest to heavily publicise these schemes? Do we not think we, as a society, will benefit from local businesses becoming more aware of the opportunities they could be providing for those aged between 16-24?
In the meantime, more and more young people slip through that net and become the forgotten generation whose only answer is to start fires in their own community and to steal trainers from sports shops. And then we disapprove. That's when we start to notice.