How primary schools can help to tackle teenage NEETs

Written by: HTU | Published:

The vital work to help tackle the number of young people who are NEET – not in education, employment or training – starts in our primary schools, research shows

With around one million young people considered NEET, the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) Research Programme has highlighted the role that primary schools can play in helping to tackle this situation.

While secondary schools are undoubtedly in the front line for this work, many decisions by young people, conscious or unconscious, about their future are heavily influenced by experiences early in their schooling. Primaries have an early impact on pupils regarding career choices and the steps needed to get there.

More and more evidence is being produced about ways of addressing the issues around young people who are NEET and this gives some valuable pointers as to the strategies and tactics primary schools and their headteachers can best deploy in order to help.

A range of recent publications in the Research Programme’s From Education to Employment theme presents four substantial reviews that establish what recent research says about ways to help those pupils at risk of becoming NEET. Here are some of the key messages for primary schools about young people at risk of disengaging, alongside some practical examples of how they can help.

The earlier the better

Look to make early interventions with pupils wherever practical, and as early as possible. Examples of the aspects to look for and act on include: early misbehaviour and absence patterns; reducing barriers to learning in the home environment; addressing early literacy and numeracy deficits; and boosting confidence and inter-personal skills at a young age.


Parents need help to be effective partners in ensuring their children’s progression from the start – and leading eventually to their further education or employment choices. Increase your school’s early support for this by ensuring that parents are positively involved in choices and decisions, and understand their own roles in any interventions. School-home support workers can help here.

Careers education

A conscious “careers education perspective” at primary level will help prepare the ground for early information, advice and guidance (IAG) provision at the start of the secondary phase. Such a staged, consistent approach throughout the school journey helps to shape pupils’ growing sense of goals and gives them a grasp of the routes to realise their ambitions as they move towards age 18.

You can help this coherent careers-aware dimension in all key stages of a pupil’s school experience by enhancing awareness of the world of work among your staff. This may come through working with local employers and parents, plus there are free resources available from many industries: media and voluntary organisations are often good sources of these. You can even make links with secondary school staff on subject and theme-specific curriculum ideas.

Involve local employers working with pupils to develop a sense of purpose for their learning and a better understanding of the world of work. Find out about the work-related opportunities they can offer – such as workplace visits or speakers in the school. That can make early contributions to children’s life-skills, ambitions and eventual employability.

Avoid replicating social and other divides if you match your pupils with such work-related opportunities, within the school and beyond it. Look to challenge their stereotypes and expectations as well as those of other people. This can be even more important with those learners who show early signs of being disruptive in school.


Identify and encourage a positive relationship between each of your pupils, particularly those at risk of disengaging, and at least one trusted adult role-model somewhere in the school. This need not be solely with teachers. Even a single such connection can help those who are most “at risk” of being NEET in later years. Staff members who take co-ordinating and supporting roles for this across the school can be very helpful.

Pupils taking responsibility

Encourage innovative experiments with teaching and learning that mean even very young pupils take some responsibility and control. Find new and different settings: the workplace or the community, for example. Learning which differs from traditional schooling – both in style and location – is vital for creating pupil enthusiasm and commitment, especially in those at risk of disengaging.

Also, engage more of your pupils, more often, in designing and monitoring their own learning. This can boost motivation, commitment, attendance, behaviour – and indeed the quality of the learning itself.

Help your pupils to manage any independent learning more effectively, to avoid early feelings that they might be falling behind, or otherwise struggling – especially when there’s been significant absence. “Catch-up sessions” outside normal class hours can help.

Understanding diversity

One feature underpinning all the NFER reviews is a new segmentation of young people who are NEET that gives us a better understanding of the diversity of this group. The research identified three sub-categories within the NEET population likely to benefit from different forms of intervention:

• “Open to learning NEETs” – young people with relatively high attainment and positive attitudes to education, and thus more likely to re-engage.

• “Sustained NEETs” – who have multiple disadvantages and more negative attitudes to education and low attainment and therefore are more like to remain NEET.

• “Undecided NEETs” – a sub-group dissatisfied with the educational and training options available, and/or their ability to access them – even if their experience and attainment means they’re similar in attainment and attitude to the “open to learning” sub-category.

The four reviews concentrate particularly on the first and third groups and look at effective general approaches to supporting pupils at risk of becoming NEET, the best use of careers professionals, relevant curriculum and qualifications strategies, and the best use of employer involvement.

Practical guides for headteachers

For each of these areas, free materials are available to download from the NFER website including a detailed research review paper, summary of the key findings, and a practical guide for headteachers that offers advice based on the evidence from the review.

The practical guides are cross-referenced wherever possible to the new Ofsted inspection framework. They show the potential connections from the tips and ideas offered to the main grading aspects of achievement, quality of teaching and learning, behaviour, leadership and overall effectiveness.

Key questions

So, what are the key questions for primary schools that emerge from these NFER reviews? They include:

• What helpful distinctions are there in the segmentation of NEET young people – and thus in the characteristics and long-term experiences of school pupils at risk of becoming NEET – and what can that tell us about the needs of our own pupils?

• What support, during the years of compulsory schooling, can help keep different groups “on track”, and thus eventually to progress constructively into further education, training or work?

• How can heads focus their resources to provide a positive impact on reducing NEET figures?

• How – in a period of growing independence married to increasing external scrutiny – can schools ensure their work in preventing at risk pupils from disengaging is recognised as effective?

The issues around young people who are NEET are long-standing and complex, and this needs long-term and multifaceted solutions throughout the education system. Heads of all kinds should take a range of strategic approaches and practical steps both within their schools and alongside their stakeholders and communities.

Further information

Set up in 2011, the NFER Research Programme targets key areas of education, highlighting gaps in existing evidence and conducting new research to fill the gaps. Current areas of focus are: From Education to Employment, Developing the Education Workforce, and Innovation in Employment. For more information on the programme or to download any of the reports and guidance documents, visit

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