Assembly Speech- NEET Debate 18/11/2008

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Mr Speaker

The motion today is timely and also of the utmost importance in today’s current economic climate.  As I have stated many times before in this House, Northern Ireland had one of the best skilled workforce’s in the world.  It was a major reason for investment in the province.  And it is only through the training and education of our young people that a skilled workforce will be created.

The aspiration of this House must be that all young people either stay on in education, or training on that they have gained employment.  A failure to do so will see them not acquiring the skills that are necessary to achieve success in future life.  Only when all our young people are learning in this way will the Northern Ireland economy prosper or reduce the negative impact of an economic downturn .both in today’s difficult economic climate and when the current difficulties are past it is for certain the economy will change quicker, the demands will be greater and the learning and skills demand will increasingly demanding.

Staying in a training post, education or learning the skills demands of a job not only supports young people for the future; it also improves their personal and social skills and equips them to prosper throughout their future.

Previous speakers have made reference to the NEET Group, 16-18 years of age group, being in the region of 9,000 or 12% of the age group.  This is a shocking figure and I was appalled to learn in asking the Minister for Education that circa 30 young people in my own constituency leave school each year without a single qualification.

The research shows that young people categorised as NEET are a diverse group.  It may well be that some of them are planning to be NEET- a gap year- others will have significant barriers to participation in education and training, poor home circumstances, problems of offending or substance abuse.  Whatever the circumstances the policy must be to address these barriers and it is likely that this can be done only, as the situation stands currently, on a one-to-one basis.

We know that children who have rejected school, stayed away from the classroom, have low education attainment levels, failed in acquiring the necessary life skills and are at greatest risk of a long-term period being spent NEET.  It appears that young males are at most risk and especially those who have a statement of special needs.

This suggests that measures to make classrooms, or perhaps we should consider learning environments rather than classrooms, more attractive to improve the three R’s and to boost attainment are likely to have the biggest long-term affect in stopping young people becoming NEET.

Investment in preventative work is necessary through specialist programmes that individually may not address the issue but if there is synergy between the programmes then a joined up implementation of these programmes can help address the needs of and improve the long-term chances for those who are most disadvantaged.

But we do need the Minister to ensure this is happening right now- not sometime in the future.  The figures demand it and it is the right thing to do for young people, their parents, the economy and Northern Ireland’s society.

It may be argued that Northern Ireland does not fare as badly as other parts of the UK.  However, this does not mean we should rest on our laurels.  We need to address the matter of NEET in its entirety and for all the reasons I have previously outlined.

In turning to the amendment can I address the matter in this way?  Ashfield Boys and Ashfield Girls schools were once schools with a poor education record.  They were characterised by poor attendance, appalling behaviour and low staff morale.

Over the past number of years, the Head Teachers Andy McMoran and Adeline Dinsmore and their teaching and support staff have raised the respect of the entire school in the minds of the educational bodies, the school pupils, parents and the wider community.  The schools now each have an environment that is composed and purposeful, pupils are uniform conscious and respectful.  The school corridors are covered with evidence of the pupil’s achievements, vocational, academic and those that lead to the development of the pupil as a responsible citizen. This leads to raising the aspirations and creating a sense of shared mission, with 73% of pupils attaining A to C grade GCSE and 100% of pupils who carry on their education receiving 2 or more A-levels.  The principals have concentrated their efforts in getting the parents on board with the objectives of the school and extending the activities of the schools into the wider community.