Attractive idea but   maybe lacking traction


The challenge represented by the NEET cohort-those young people not in education employment or training -has flummoxed politicians for some time now.

Although there is considerable churn, with   young  people moving in and out of the category,  combined with arguments about who is technically in  the category-for over a decade now around 10% of the 16-24 cohort have been classed as NEET . Despite governments best intentions and investment ,little has changed.

Jon Coles the former DFE official  memorably said, not so long ago, that NEET is  ‘a matter of life and death’ ,as around 15% of those now in the category will be dead within a decade.

Philip Blond,who heads up ResPublica is one of the more original  and refreshing thinkers in the think tank community and heavily influenced David Camerons approach articulated in the Big Society idea.  He believes that neither the collectivist nor the individualist approach to politics has worked-so we need a radically new approach to public policy . Not many would disagree.Social mobility is stagnant and the gap between the  ‘haves’ and ‘ have nots’ has,  if anything, widened.  He is keen to develop new approaches to helping address the NEET challenge, the problems of intergenerational deprivation and the lack of opportunities for too many children and young people. The intermediate institutions within society that help bind it are not functioning at present  and are diminished ,  not helped by top down interventions. His analysis is compelling.

Following the ResPublica publication Military Academies: Tackling disadvantage, improving ethos and changing outcomes –ResPublica held a discussion in  Westminster this week  to look at new approaches to tackling intergenerational disadvantage and socio-educational dysfunction. These military academies, it is envisaged,  would employ ex-Forces as qualified teachers, have veteran mentors, and offer on-site cadet force and extended provision of adventurous outdoor training. ResPublica asked a panel of experts whether we have lost the foundational moral institutions that can build the resilience, discipline and confidence that our children need, from the most disadvantaged areas of our society.

Speakers included Phillip Blond,   who co-authored   the Military Academies report ;  Julian Brazier MP, Conservative MP for Canterbury and a former Territorial Army Officer, Andrew Bridgen ,  Conservative MP for North West Leicestershire.– who trained as a Marine  –  and Joel Shenton, Editor, (chair). It’s a big topic, of course, but discussions centred on the role that Military Academies and Cadet Forces might play in engaging young people threatened with exclusion who can be mentored and supported by former military men and women to help   nurture the kind of skills and values  on display within the services  (team work, leadership, loyalty , personal responsibility, self-discipline, resilience and so on)and  which are so important  for success in life and  in order to contribute to the broader community. The argument goes that a solution to tackling these problems lies within groups and communities and peer to peer, support at the grass roots. Military Academies with a distinctive new ethos  could provide part of the architecture to  help address these issues, as  local intermediary institutions  could teach the skills and provide  the mentoring support to alter outcomes for those who live in our most troubled and disadvantaged communities.

Stephen Twigg MP, the shadow education secretary, backed the report’s findings when it came out.  He said: “The Armed Forces can make an important contribution to the nation not just on the battlefield but by embedding the standards and values they embody within our social fabric. One way this can be achieved is through educational provision.” But public   backing from the government has been less obvious, to the irritation of Blond. Indeed it is worth reminding ourselves that a very recent  Free school bid-the Phoenix School in Manchester-  backed by former servicemen, including a former Army chief, Lord Guthrie  and which was  committed to doing pretty much what the military academies  are supposed to do-was  recently rejected by the DFE on the grounds that it  didn’t have sufficient community support, a claim vigorously  contested by the bidders.

The Centre for Policy studies produced a report, a while back, recommending that former servicemen should teach in our classrooms (borrowing from an American model) –Blonds idea goes a bit further in that the whole grain and  ethos of these institutions should reflect that of the services.( He even suggested at one point that the Navy had an impressive record of social mobility in that a third of  serving officers began as ratings) One contributor from the floor expressed concerns that military involvement might be seen as a means of exploiting vulnerable teenagers and this was   simply a recruiting tool for the services. Blond said that this was absolutely not the intention and he stressed the need for young people to stay in and serve their local communities. At present policies enable a small group of young people to move up the social ladder  but leaving their communities behind.

The idea is, on the face of it,  attractive and Blond is a breath of fresh air, but getting it up to scale in the current  economic and political climate is a big ask particularly given that no Minister has obviously  taken it on board and the opposition has embraced it with such enthusiasm. The experience of the Phoenix school hardly provides grounds for optimism. Certainly such schools could make a difference in some communities.

But  even  if  the  plan  does get off the ground it will not be sufficient in scale or scope to tackle   the entrenched NEET problem. But, then again, perhaps the only way to tackle NEETs is incrementally,  but systematically too, with a series of mutually supportive  and  carefully targeted programmes.


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