For a recent research project, SET member and teacher Paul Smith spent time talking to young people aged sixteen to nineteen. Most of these learners had been classed as 'Not in Education, Employment or Training' (NEET) or had attended several courses in colleges and training providers before starting their current courses. This blog describes some of his findings.
The image of young people studying on courses designed for those who have not achieved GCSEs can be poor. They are often portrayed as lacking in skills and aspiration, with some characterised as having bad behaviour and poor motivation.
Rather than lacking in aspiration, many saw a future in childcare, health and social care, accountancy, construction and administration. Some aspired to apprenticeships, whilst others aspired to do higher education level courses.
Warehousing and flexible aspiration
In the short time since they had sat their GCSEs, nearly all the young people I spoke to had experienced ‘warehousing’. This is where young people repeatedly start, but do not complete, courses in further education colleges and training providers, or complete a number of courses at the same level. For example, one of the young people I spoke to was on his third course below GCSE level since he had left school at the age of sixteen.
Most of the young people thought they would be unemployed if they were not studying – they felt joining a course was the only alternative to not having a job.
Most of the young people had changed their aspirations since leaving school. Far from not knowing what they wanted to do when they left school, they aspired to specific jobs or careers. However, when a pathway to a specific job was closed, they would be flexible with their aspiration, selecting a new career goal based on the opportunities and courses available to them at that point in time.
Barriers to success
The young people reflected on the barriers that they had faced when leaving the familiar and safe world of school and moving into further education (FE).
- They recognised their previous performance at GCSE meant finding courses was difficult, with most of the young people not achieving C grades at GCSE English and maths.
- They felt English and maths qualifications were important, but were difficult to achieve at GCSE grade C or above.
- Some found finding a place on an apprenticeship difficult, even if they had GCSEs above grade C.
- Those who achieved GCSEs at grade C or above felt they were only advised about studying A-levels.
- The learners who progressed on to A-level or Level 3 courses after their GCSEs felt they were unprepared for study at a higher level.
- Many did not feel higher education was for them - one young person commented that university was for "clever people".
From my experience, the students I spoke to did not know the full extent of further education; they did not realise the full types of courses available and the different types of providers they could attend. Many were unaware of what training providers could offer them as an alternative to starting a course at a college or sixth form.
What I learned from speaking to the group was that they were willing to be flexible with their goals and change what they wanted to do as a career if they were unsuccessful with their first choice of course. However, this usually meant they had already experienced failure.
Where learners could see a progression pathway, and work experience was guaranteed, they would aspire to higher levels, including professional qualifications and foundation degrees. This indicates the need for young people to have conversations about what to do next and the importance of work experience within their chosen career.
As teachers, we should provide access to more than just subject knowledge and vocational skills. We must facilitate the ambitions of young people by discussing a wider range of ways to meet their aspirations. This includes making sure they are prepared for higher levels of study and talking to them about what kind of jobs they might see themselves doing in the future. We must also be positive about English and maths qualifications, especially as these are seen as important by employers.
The students I spoke to were articulate, polite and well behaved, and all were based with training providers which offered real pathways to careers through work experience, qualifications and progression routes.
By stereotyping young people who are on courses designed for NEET learners as lacking in ambition, we are missing out on a wealth of talent. I believe they have the capacity to go all the way. As teachers, we must ensure they can meet their goals and aspirations by actively promoting and ensuring higher level courses and careers are accessible to all.
Paul Smith has worked as a teacher and manager in training providers and FE colleges for 13 years. He has taught English, maths and employability to NEET young people and adult learners. He has an interest in the history of further education and recently completed an MPhil in Education at the University of Birmingham. Having taken time out of work to complete his research, Paul currently works as an interim manager and consultant.