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Last Updated: Monday, 5 November 2007, 13:07 GMT
Drop-out teens to get extra help
The UK has one of the worst records on teenage school drop-outs
The government is promising to sharply reduce the number of teenagers in England outside of work, education or training - currently 206,000.

The Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, has warned that teenage drop-outs without qualifications or training will be left behind by changes in the jobs market.

The Queen's Speech on Tuesday will include plans to raise the school leaving age in England from 16 to 18.

An extra 90,000 apprenticeships will also become available.

"In today's fast changing, dynamic world, everyone needs skills to prosper," Mr Balls told the Fabian Society in a speech on Monday.

"And the days where many people could leave school at 16 without qualifications and work their way up into a fulfilling and rewarding career are behind us."

'Neet' answers

International comparisons show that the UK has one of the worst records in the industrialised world for the proportion of 16-year-olds dropping out of education and training.

81.5% of 17-year-olds in education or training
1.2m 16-17-year-olds in full-time education
248,000 in work without training
138,500 in work-based learning
206,000 not in work, education or training

And the problem of "Neets" (not in education, employment or training) has been stubbornly resistant to initiatives - and there is currently a higher proportion of the age group in this category than when the Labour government came to power in 1997.

The numbers of these workless, untrained youths surged in the mid-1980s, reflecting high rates of unemployment.

But despite improvements in the labour market and repeated drives to raise secondary school standards, the problem of Neets remained throughout the 1990s - and has seen an underlying increase since the late-1990s.

The government's latest strategy to reduce the number of Neets is a combination of carrot and stick.

There will be more support for training - with more apprenticeships and an expansion of the educational maintenance allowance, which provides means-tested financial support to teenagers attending courses.

The current offer of a place in education or training for all 16-year-olds will be extended to 17-year-olds.

Personalised advice will be available from counsellors for those considered to be at risk of dropping out.

There will also be an attempt to make further education courses more flexible - with students able to begin in January as well as September.

Leaving age

The leaving age for education will be raised, initially to 17 by 2013 and then to 18 by 2015 - with the threat of fines or community service for non-compliance.

Until the kids see hope and a change in society, you can keep them in school till they are 65 - it won't make an ounce of difference
Gary Higgins, Liverpool, UK

However, since 52% of Neets are aged 18, they would not necessarily be affected by the planned increase in the leaving age.

The benefits system will also be changed to discourage young people from remaining as "long-term Neets".

Outside of employment and often with few qualifications, these teenagers have been linked to a cycle of disadvantage and social problems.

This group has been difficult to reach - and Mr Balls says there is a need for more systematic intervention for such youngsters.

"We need to intensify support so that long-term Neets are offered a way back into work or education. I look forward to a time when no young person will be long-term Neet," said Mr Balls.

The Conservatives' education spokesperson, Michael Gove, described the plans as a "gimmick" and a "badly thought out policy".

"It will mean more disruptive children in schools and colleges, fewer jobs available for 16 to18 year olds, and an even wider gap between rich and poor," said Mr Gove.

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