By Gary Eason
Education editor, BBC News website
By common consensus youngsters who are not in education, employment or training (Neet) are a drag on the economy and are blighting their own life prospects.
Counting those who are in education is the easy part
But just how bad a problem are they?
Neets are a statistical construct. No-one has a list of names and addresses for them. The government is trying to count a negative.
Shortcomings in the system that tracks what becomes of young people mean that officials do not know what 5% are up to - they are simply not on the databases.
The official statisticians estimate how many are Neet.
They know how many are in employment and they know those who are on school and college rolls, so they can subtract those from the known total population aged 16 to 18.
They also subtract the numbers in employer-funded training and other non-college training, which are themselves estimates.
Finally they use the Labour Force Survey, a seasonally adjusted sample survey of households around Britain, to estimate what proportion of the remainder is Neet.
At the end of 2006 there were said to be 206,000 Neets aged 16 to 18 in England in the target group for the government's new strategy.
We imagine them to be the idle feckless - good-for-nothing layabouts, content to subsist on benefits and/or family handouts.
But the government's own strategy document makes it clear this is a misleading impression.
It says: "The Neet group is not static but rather a rapidly changing group - most young people do not spend long periods Neet."
The vast majority are actually "engaging in education, employment or training" - they are just "moving in and out of the system as they drop out of or complete their previous activity".
So part of the strategy is to get them re-engaged as quickly as possible, rather than spending what may be months doing nothing.
It adds: "It is estimated that only around 1% of 16-18 year olds are 'long term Neet' - that is, those not doing anything at each of the three survey points at the ages of 16, 17 and 18 years old."
At any one time, it says, over half of the group is actively seeking education, employment or training.
What is more, raising the education leaving age to 18 will have no impact on half the target group.
To see why, we have to define what it means officially to be a certain age.
At present, young people no longer have to be in full-time education from the end of the academic year in which they turn 16.
The government's proposed legislation will raise this to 17, from the year 2013.
Then, from 2015, it will extend to the age of 18 - but that will apply from their 18th birthday, not the end of the school year. (This is how it used to operate for 16-year-olds until this government changed the rules).
So changing the leaving age will have limited impact because at present, 52% of those classed as Neets - just over half - are already of "academic age 18".
This has gone up from 40% five years ago, by the way.
That is, 18 at the start of the academic year: 31 August.
In other words, half the target group will be unaffected by the proposed raising of the leaving age, though that is only one plank of the government's strategy.
For those who are within the age group, the National Union of Students wonders how compulsory participation will be enforced.
"Unlike in a school classroom, you cannot just take a register of those people who are involved in training schemes and apprenticeships," it says.
Among other characteristics of this diverse group of Neets, persistent absentees are seven times more likely to be doing nothing aged 16 than those who have had regular school attendance.
Those with learning difficulties are twice as likely to be Neet.
In a sign of how one social problem in which Britain has a poor record dovetails with another, the Neets include an estimated 20,000 teenage mothers.
But the gender gap is widening, with boys now more than twice as likely as girls to be doing nothing.
Researchers working for the then Department for Education and Skills came up with various characteristics of youngsters who were likely to drop out:
Angry young rebels
Against the system. Moderate to low ability. Very hostile to authority and hence teachers. Disruptive in class. Although hostile to school, they yearn for respect. They can be attracted to college courses that offer opportunities to succeed.
Believe they have tried and failed. Moderate to low ability. Any reaction from hostility to passivity. Need to be offered courses at 14-16 at an appropriate level they can succeed in.
Rebels without a cause
Impatient to make their own way in the world of work. Believe their personality will be their key to success. High to moderate ability. School is boring, but this group is not hostile to teachers. Unless their attitudes change, apprenticeships are the only post-16 option of interest. They are keen to get out of learning and start earning money.
Life is predicated on having fun, and school gets in the way of this. High or moderate ability, but underachieving. Disengaged, but not hostile. Seen as lazy by teachers. Alternative provision is unlikely to have an effect. Their underlying attitudes to work and leisure drive their underachievement.
Disaffected but in touch. Waiting to commit until they get their GCSE results. Moderate to low ability. Generally positive. Vocational and occupational options may re-engage them. Again, mentoring can also help to realign their aspirations.
Disaffected but in touch. Have chosen an undemanding life. Sit between "Cool Dudes" and "Quitters". Moderate to low ability. Passive. This group is probably masking a fear of failure. Like "Quitters" they need to be offered courses at 14-16 at an appropriate level they can succeed in.
Dream of being "discovered". Low ability. Disengaged and disconnected. Vocational and occupational options may re-engage them. Again, mentoring can also help to realign their aspirations.
Want to do well, have unrealistic aspirations, but have not given up. Low ability. Positive and eager to get on. Need to be offered courses at 14-16 at an appropriate level they can succeed in. Mentoring can also help to realign their aspirations.