07/04/2014 10:46 BST | Updated 04/06/2014 06:59 BST

Tackling Poor Attainment and Preventing NEETs HAS to Start with Character-Building

Former children's minister Tim Loughton said last week that improving educational outcomes is the key to tackling youth unemployment. He's absolutely right, and it is early intervention programmes like ours that can help to ensure the most disadvantaged young children and teenagers are able to achieve their full academic, and personal, potential.

At Teens and Toddlers we have long been extolling the virtues of developing children's 'soft skills' in order to help them succeed in school, work and life. So it was encouraging to learn, in February, that the Government was including a key promise in its new draft child poverty strategy to "tackle attainment barriers that poor children face through...develop[ing] children's 'character' skills."

When it comes to educational attainment and employment, all young people have a tougher time of it these days than ever before. With high levels of youth unemployment being constantly reported in the news it's easy to see why they might be lacking in aspirations and failing to fulfil both their academic and personal potential. Those from disadvantaged backgrounds have additional pressures that may increase their risk of becoming disengaged, such as low self-esteem, low educational attainment and a lack of positive role models - all of which are critical to prevent young people from becoming NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training) and having children at an early age.

With the right support, however, these young people can not only stay or become re-engaged with education, they can go on to thrive and become the best that they can be. That's why interventions like Teens and Toddlers - an innovative 18-week programme where disadvantaged teens mentor nursery children in need of extra support - are so crucial in giving young people the vital interpersonal and decision-making skills that they need to address the underlying issues that can lead to them becoming NEET.

And it's not just teenagers who benefit from our programme. The nursery children they mentor - who themselves require additional support because, for example, they may have learning disabilities or may not speak English as their first language - benefit too, as they receive extra attention in the classroom to help to improve their social, personal and communication skills.

This latter point is particularly pertinent in light of the recent debates around literacy and numeracy in primary. Michael Gove has declared that he wants "at least 85% of primary school pupils to reach the level of literacy and numeracy that means they're on course to get good grades at GCSE." And it was last week reported that Ofsted's chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, believes too many children lack basic language and counting skills when they start school. Surely, then, it's an enormous help to often over-stretched nursery staff to have additional help with their most vulnerable children in the form of teenage mentors?

The outcomes of our programme speak for themselves. Our recent retrospective survey of over 1,000 programme graduates found that 96% of Teens and Toddlers participants aged 16-18 are EET (in Education, Employment or Training) - over 9% higher than the national average for all young people, not just those at a disadvantage. Furthermore, 53% of Teens and Toddlers participants achieved 5 A-C GCSEs including Maths and English - a figure almost 38% higher than the national average for disadvantaged young people. Our programme outcomes are further reaching than educational attainment, too. 1.3% of 15-17 year old Teens and Toddlers participants became pregnant in 2012 - half as many as those not on the programme. Later this year we will also be publishing the results of our Toddler Impact Study, which we are confident will demonstrate the benefits to the small children who take part in the programme.

So how does it work? Teens and Toddlers is the only programme that targets two sets of disadvantaged children for early intervention, by pairing at-risk teenagers with vulnerable small children in a nursery setting to offer real-life experience of mentoring a small child and the challenges of parenthood. This approach gives the young people a sense of responsibility and the opportunity to act as a role model. Teens and Toddlers also provides a gateway to employment and qualifications, providing the opportunity to gain an Accredited Level 1 NCFE (QCF) Award in Interpersonal skills. We work with local authorities and schools to identify teens using a DfE-approved "at risk" assessment tool. We identify "disadvantage" through poverty (free school meals), disengagement and/or exclusion from education, and the likelihood of risky behaviour.

Work experience in the nursery is combined with one-on-one coaching and classroom sessions. After two hours in the nursery, the young people spend an hour in the classroom where, with a trained facilitator, they explore what they have learnt in the nursery and in their lives to build interpersonal skills and emotional literacy (e.g. confidence, self-esteem, self-management and social skills). The young people are encouraged to communicate effectively, make positive choices (e.g. around sexual health), examine risky behaviour and understand the importance of career and educational attainment. They gain key skills to find a job, such as building rapport and achieving goals.

The programme has five simple objectives. These are: To raise educational attainment and aspirations in young people; to support vulnerable young people to develop life skills and new positive life goals; to develop emotional literacy (self-reflection, self-management, awareness of others and social skills); to increase knowledge of relationships and sexual health; and to educate young people about the impact of risky behaviour, such as the responsibilities of caring for a child to convey the importance of postponing pregnancy.

During adolescence, the teenage brain is still developing in the prefrontal cortex; this area is critical for reasoning, risk evaluation and inhibitory control (Bunge et al., 2002). The work we do to help young people make positive choices builds up stronger neural pathways, which can support resilience and achievement. We also continue to support young people after Teens and Toddlers into their early twenties with follow-on programmes, offering opportunities to develop life and work skills and to volunteer to help others in the community.

Teens and Toddlers works because we provide a positive experience so that teenagers can explore the issues that affect them and learn that they have choices. During classroom time, the young people develop a portfolio to help them achieve the Level 1 NCFE (QCF) Award in Interpersonal Skills. At the end of the programme, the young people are presented with their award at a 'VIP' Ceremony which celebrates their achievement - for many this is the first time they have been formally recognised as an academic achiever, and this can have a profound effect on their sense of self-worth. This public endorsement helps to build their confidence and encourages progression into further education.

In a political climate where belts are being pulled ever tighter, it's vital that investment is made in early intervention youth services like ours, because they truly are the key to reducing the cost of NEET young people in our society. For every £1 spent on Teens and Toddlers, society saves £6 - a Social Return on Investment (SROI) of £1:6 over five years, as measured by the Centre for Excellence in Outcomes. It can cost as little as £1,250 to turn a young person's life around and, in doing so, save society an enormous amount of money by preventing young people from becoming disengaged with work, school and life in the first place. Most importantly, it can enable a vulnerable young person to discover who they can become and their strengths, skills and gifts that they have to contribute to the world.

Former children's minister Tim Loughton said last week that improving educational outcomes is the key to tackling youth unemployment. He's absolutely right, and it is early intervention programmes like ours that can help to ensure the most disadvantaged young children and teenagers are able to achieve their full academic, and personal, potential.