New research shows how the Connexions service faces an uphill task if
it is to reach out to disaffected young people, write Gary Craig and Bob Coles.

disappearance from official statistics of increasing numbers of young adults
has been a cause for growing concern among policy-makers and service providers
for almost 20 years.1

The withdrawal of
many from traditional social and political engagement was provoked by the
ending of the automatic right to social assistance benefits in the late 1980s
and accelerated by a difficult housing market and the introduction of the poll
tax. By the time of the 1991 census, young men aged 18 and over were a
significant proportion of the one million-plus population under-count.

Governments did not
seem interested in the issue until the arrival of Labour’s Social Exclusion
Unit in 1998. Many of its early reports focused on the situation of disaffected
young people, in particular its 1999 report, Bridging the Gap, on young
people not in education, employment or training (Neet).

Bridging the Gap reported
that such young people tended to be those not participating (through school
exclusion or truancy) in education at age 16. They were concentrated in areas
of substantial unemployment and deprivation, were likely to be young parents,
and were disproportionately from minority ethnic groups, notably of
Bangladeshi, Pakistani and African-Caribbean background.

The government’s
response was to establish the Connexions youth support service. Acting on the
finding that disaffection started early in a young person’s life, and that
careers support came into schools too late, Connexions targets young people
from the age of 13 and is intended to provide joined-up advice, guidance,
support and personal development, differentiated according to need. Connexions
began to be piloted in 2001 and will be rolled out to all parts of England and
Wales by 2004. Some of the pilot services are experimenting with innovative
ways of reaching disaffected young people, including one-stop shops, outreach services
and different ways of engaging with schools. A national training scheme has
been established to support those moving to work in Connexions from other
employment contexts.2,3

Despite some
promising signs and interesting innovations, there are still some fundamental
challenges to be faced by the service. As the first pilots were starting we
were part of a team completing a major national study, funded by the Joseph
Rowntree Foundation, into the perceptions of young people living in
multicultural areas. We interviewed 64 16-17 year olds, many of them twice, and
half of them young women, about how they became disengaged from school and
work, about their personal circumstances and about their needs for support.
Given the concern about ethnic minority groups, two-thirds of our sample were
from minorities, mainly South Asian and African Caribbean. We also talked to
official and community agencies which were – or supposed to be – in touch with
these troubled young people. Our findings suggest several issues which
Connexions needs to address if it is to be effective.

We can see at least
four ways in which the service may fail to reach the most disengaged young

Firstly, there were
at the time of our research a significant number of young people unknown to
official agencies. Partly this is because of failings of data collection and
monitoring, but it is mainly because official agencies are not seen as an
appropriate source of support. Some young people have no careers records
(probably more than the government thinks). Our modest estimate of the number
of young people not in education, employment or training is in the region of
220,000, considerably more than official government estimates. Within this
larger number, it is clear that members of some ethnic minorities are more
likely to disappear than others. Our evidence suggests that institutional
racism is a factor in this.

Secondly, some young
people had no contact with official agencies, such as the old careers service,
beyond 16 and disappear from official view for a variety of reasons: they may
move away from their home areas, they may be subject to homelessness or
imprisonment, and many live a transient, floating life. For young Muslim women,
the issue of arranged marriages was significant. We found five young women who
had dropped out of further educational or training careers faced with threats
or the reality of violence from male family members. For some of these, the
route into obscurity led them to refuges.

Thirdly, some young
people do not respond to enquiries, give up in frustration and don’t make use
of what is on offer. What many of the young men said they wanted was a job;
what was on offer was training or college courses, both of which they rejected.
Furthermore, for them, what was on offer in terms of advice and support is not
provided in a way or at a time which they can access. Many young people we
spoke to were recruited through community and voluntary agencies situated
within the areas where they lived and run by people with whom they could identify,
in terms of the culture of the organisation and ethnicity.

Finally, Connexions
may miss out because what is on offer simply does not meet these young people’s
needs. Disengaged and often quite damaged young people needed unquestioning and
flexible support. Most of them had reasonably clear and realistic ideas of what
they wanted to do but little idea of how to get there, and little support –
particularly for young mothers and fathers – in negotiating their way to their
destination. For quite a few, their hope was to get a job but they often
experienced inflexible demands to move into education or training. Many were
operating in the informal economy and needed uncritical help in getting back
into the mainstream.

Our research suggests
that Connexions will particularly have to address the problem of racism. This
featured strongly in young people’s contact with official agencies such as
careers services, schools and child care agencies. In the case of one careers
service, institutional racism led to young people effectively being excluded
from accessing the service.

Next, a much stronger
role needs to be given to voluntary and community sector organisations. These
are often the sorts of organisations skilled at outreach, flexible in approach,
informal in their culture, which the most disaffected – of all ethnic origins –
can relate to. They are also the organisations which can contribute the missing
pieces of the jigsaw of mapping and tracking disaffected young people.

Thirdly, there
remains a huge task to ensure really joined-up working. Half of the young
people we spoke to were disengaged from school. This often coincided with
incidents at home, including abuse, bereavement, threats of arranged marriage
and other traumatic events. But these appeared frequently to be unnoticed by
schools or professional workers who tended to blame the victim.

Finally, even with
considerable investment of time, sensitive and locally-based researchers, and a
variety of techniques for staying in touch – including birthday cards,
telephone calls and contact with support agencies – we lost almost half of the
young people before the end of the two-year study. Connexions will not work if
its culture is a largely desk and office-based operation. If it is effectively
to reach the most disengaged, it will have to undertake careful and
well-resourced outreach and detached work: and this will be a fundamental
challenge to a national government-funded service.

1 G Craig, Fit
For Nothing?
, Children’s Society, London 1991: Also, D Istance, D Rees and
H Williamson, Young People Not In Education, Employment or Training,
South Glamorgan Training and Enterprise Council, 1994

2 R Coles,
“Slouching towards Bethlehem: youth policy and the work of the Social Exclusion
Unit”, in Social Policy Review 12, Social Policy Association, 2000

3 Details
on Connexions from:

Gary Craig is
professor of social justice at the University of Hull, and Bob Coles is senior lecturer
in social policy at the University of York. The study on which this article is
based is by L Britton, B Chatrik, R Coles, G Craig, C Hylton and S Mumtaz, Missing
Policy Press, Bristol, 2002.

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