Blackburn with Darwen bucks trend on Neets

Bucking national trends, one local authority has successfully reduced the number of unengaged young people in the area

The recession’s impact was starkly demonstrated when figures this summer revealed a record number of young people in England were not in education, employment or training.

Department for Children, Schools and Families statistics show the number of 16- to 24-year-olds who fell into this bracket in June – and are therefore now known as Neets – rose by 149,000 since the same time last year to 959,000.

But, despite this national rise, one area is bucking the trend. In Blackburn with Darwen, the number of Neets has declined by 25% over the last three years, and this year the number dropped to below 500 individuals for the first time.

The reduction is the result of a concerted effort by the council, the local Connexions service (run by social enterprise CXL) and other partners. A key part of the success is down to young people being identified and referred to Connexions, which then works closely with them to keep track of their circumstances. Steve Foster, an operations manager at the borough’s Connexions service who leads on vulnerable groups including care leavers, young offenders and teenage parents, says the tracking is particularly important for Neets.

“All young people have a named personal adviser, so we know what they doing. If they are a Neet, we go through a great deal of effort to make sure we engage with them, for example through home visits and evening and weekend phone calls,” he says.

Every school in the area has two Connexions personal advisers (PAs) working on site, and the team also has PAs seconded into the youth offending team and the council’s leaving care team. Foster believes it is this effective use of staff that sets the service apart.

The Connexions team is also good at finding extra pots of funding in order to enhance their service. This has included successful bids to the Working Neighbourhoods Fund to run a scheme locating vacancies for young people in the public sector.

The initiative, called the Public Sector Apprenticeship Project, is in its third year and is open to all young people, although it targets mainly those who are vulnerable and who would be unlikely to otherwise have access to vacancies. Employers taking part in the scheme include the local authority, Connexions, the police, and the health service. Each young person is supported throughout the application process and assigned a mentor to maximise the likelihood of success.

Through the project, more than 100 young people have been helped to gain apprenticeships and Entry to Employment (E2E) training positions. These are places on learning programmes aimed at helping young people to progress into either modern apprenticeships, further learning or a job. Those with apprenticepships receive an apprenticeship wage, while those on the E2E programme receive education maintenance allowance.

Deborah Gornik, head of early intervention, prevention and partnerships at the council’s children’s services department, says that the project’s work with care leavers or looked-after children leaving school represents an extension of the council’s corporate parenting role. “It’s bringing our own children into the family business so they can understand what work-life balance is about,” she says. “The real success of this scheme is the young people themselves and their real grit and determination to succeed when the odds are stacked against them.”

Children’s centres as employers

Children’s centres are also taking part in the Blackburn with Darwen scheme. The centres are able to provide supportive placements to young people, providing them with access to services such as childcare.

However, there are also challenges. Deborah Gornik, head of early intervention, prevention and partnerships at the council’s children’s services department, explains how a lot of the facilities are staffed by local people with similar backgrounds to the young people and, as a result, staff can feel the youngsters are receiving preferential treatment. “The issues that [the staff] were facing themselves were not that different, but not as much leniency had been given and that can be really hard,” she says.

Louise Taylor, 22, who has had a difficult childhood, was initially doing an apprenticeship in business administration with the council in 2005 but became interested in a career in childcare after taking part in some sessions for mums and pre-school children. This led her to enrol on a childcare GNVQ course supported by the local authority. Taylor says that her council colleagues also helped her throughout her course.

“I found my training really hard and there were times when I felt like I might give up,” she recalls. “It really helped just to know that people are there for you. Everyone was fantastic.”

On completion of the course, Taylor found a job as a nursery nurse at Livesey children’s and all-age centre in Blackburn, but then had to move away from the area and went through a difficult patch when she was struggling to get to work on time.

Taylor says her managers at the centre were highly supportive and, five months ago, helped her to transfer to Darwen’s children’s centre, which is more convenient for her to get to. “The management team were really good. They really helped me. I would have done it myself, but with their help it made me stronger.”

This article is published in the 17 September 2009 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline NEETs No More

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