The latest figures on youth unemployment from the Office for National Statistics - which show the unemployment rate for 16 to 24-year-olds is now more than double that of the wider population, with one in five young people not in employment, education or training (NEET) - paint an extremely worrying picture for today's young people, and those who work with them.
The findings come off the back of Unicef's recently issued report which put the UK near-bottom of an international league table of young people where employment, education, training and teen pregnancy were concerned. Whilst some, such as the Times' David Aaronovitch, questioned the integrity of Unicef's statistics, when taken with the latest figures there can be no question that we, as a nation, must do more to help our young people.
Unsurprisingly, it's often the most 'at-risk' young people - care leavers, children of teenage mothers and those disengaged from education - who are the most likely to become NEET. Many try to fill the gaps in their lives by becoming parents, unaware of the challenges and risks of having children at such a young age. Others go 'off the rails,' turning to drink, drugs and sometimes even gangs and violence to try and find a sense of identity in their turbulent worlds.
Apprenticeships and vocational courses for young people are undoubtedly important ways of helping prevent them from becoming NEET. But the challenge that so many overlook is that the young people who most need these opportunities may not be best placed to cope with them. Often they have led chaotic lives without role models or structure. They may lack vital interpersonal skills, making it hard to adapt to the work environment.
Teens and Toddlers is a youth development charity which has been working with highly 'at-risk' young people since 2001. We believe that in order to tackle the related issues of young people falling out of education, employment and training and teen pregnancy it is first necessary to address the emotional and behavioural issues that go hand in hand with being disadvantaged and disengaged.
Our Teens and Toddlers programme is the only youth development programme to benefit two sets of vulnerable children simultaneously, raising the aspirations of young people aged between 13 and 17 by pairing them as a mentor and role model to a child in a nursery who is in need of extra support (for example refugees whose first language is not English, or children with autism). The young people act as mentors to the children and the children, in turn, provide the teens with a sense of responsibility. This early intervention approach targets the underlying issues that can lead to young people becoming NEET.
Outside of the nursery the teenagers take part in classroom sessions with our trained facilitators which focus on anger and behavioural management, emotional intelligence (including self-management and social skills) and barriers to achievement, such as bullying and understanding the impact of risky behaviours. At the end of the programme graduates earn an accredited NCFE Level 1 Award in Interpersonal Skills, which helps them on the path to further education and builds their sense of pride.
Whilst it may seem counterintuitive pairing disengaged teenagers with vulnerable small children, what we find time and again on our projects is that no matter how the teens behave outside of the nursery, once inside they leave their attitude at the door. How is it possible for this approach to have such a profound effect? The answer lies in trust and respect.
'At risk' young people are labelled early on as problematic. This label is passed around so much that it eventually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Teens and Toddlers approach empowers young people by trusting them rather than controlling them, respecting them rather than judging them. Teens who have never had a positive role model find one in the facilitator, who helps them to understand the scope of their potential and the consequences of the choices they make in life. The time they spend with the young children builds their sense of responsibility and self-esteem, and also gives them valuable insight into what it would be like to be a teen parent.
Before young people begin our programme teachers tell us that they expect 45% to become NEET and 45% to become teen parents. Once they graduate from our programme, however, the evaluation outcomes tell a different story, with only 3% becoming NEET and 1.6% reporting a pregnancy. Furthermore, our graduates go on to achieve an average of 6.5 GCSEs.
Kym from Manchester took part in the programme in 2010. She says: "When I started Teens and Toddlers I was getting into a lot of trouble at school. I was living with my Nana as me and Mum just didn't get on. She was doing drugs. I was drinking a lot and getting into fights.
"Being on Teens and Toddlers changed that. I enjoyed going to the nursery and being praised for doing something good. My school wanted to exclude me but the staff at Teens and Toddlers spoke to my Head teacher and told her how good I was doing on the programme. I am in my final year now at school and I want to make sure that I do my best. I know that having a good education is important as I want to go to Uni and study Social Work."
In the last year Teens and Toddlers has increased the number of young people it reaches by over 50 per cent, and the charity has ambitious plans to reach over 5,000 young people and 5,000 children a year by 2018.
To give young people a chance in life, we all need to work together to equip them with the skills and self-belief they need to succeed. Only then will we see an end to the shocking unemployment statistics and a more positive picture for the UK's young people in Unicef's next report.