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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 August 2005, 10:25 GMT 11:25 UK
A 'Neet' solution
By Simon Cox

Man walks past iPod ads
One college offered free iPods
"Neet" is the latest buzzword for teenage drop-outs. Some have tried offering grants and free iPods to tempt them into action, but is what's seen as bribery the answer?

"I wasn't doing much, just dossing about getting wrecked every day," says Siobhan Dennehy, who at 18 has become an expert in doing as little as possible since leaving school.

Siobhan is a "Neet", a Government term for 16- to 19-year-olds not in education, employment or training. When I told Siobhan she was a Neet, she asked if it was the same thing as being a "chav".

It's much more serious. Neets are 20 times more likely to commit a crime and 22 times more likely to be a teenage mum. It's estimated there are 150,000 of them in the UK and they cost the taxpayer an extra 100,000 over the course of their lifetime.

The former welfare minister Frank Field says the situation is out of hand: "Where might Britain end up if this group continues to grow? What we are facing is a lost generation."

140 on a mini iPod - if it keeps them off the street, it's money well spent
Sean Kelly, Bournemouth College
The Government wants to cut the teenagers in this bracket by 20% in the next 5 years and has spent hundreds of millions of pounds trying to come up with a solution.

Bournemouth College thinks it has the answer - bribes, or what it calls incentives. This summer it has run a 14-week course for Neets. The teenagers taking part get 50 a week, free lunches, free travel, and a 100 bonus and a free iPod if they complete the course.

Not surprisingly, this has provoked uproar from the media. The course director Sean Kelly remains unrepentant: "140 quid on a mini iPod - if it keeps them off the street, it's money well spent." Bribe or not, it has worked - 46 of the 53 students who enrolled stuck with the course.

Money for studies

In Barking and Dagenham they would love to repeat this success. The London borough has been dubbed the UK's "Neet capital", with a quarter of teenagers out of school and without a job.

Nothing to do and doing nothing
The Government's big idea to help Neets was Connexions, a careers and advice service for young people. It works for the motivated but it has less success on the borough's big estates. Connexions advisor Elwyn Lonque spends her days touring Barking looking for teenagers to help, but it's often frustrating: "If they can't get out of the house, there's not much more I can do."

Ministers think Connexions isn't working, which is why they have proposed big changes to the service, giving more power to local authorities. One policy that is bound to expand is the education maintenance allowance. This gives 30 a week to poor students to carry on their studies.

At Barking College, the students getting the allowance have better attendance and they are more likely to complete their course than other students. Boys like Kamal, who is 19 and is using the allowance to study construction at the college. He thinks the Government should get tough with the teenagers on his estate who won't take up what's on offer: "If they are doing nothing they are going to be up to something - just send them to prison."

Boys in an alley
The risk is a "lost generation"
The Government obviously won't go this far, but it is looking at "conditionality", jargon for making sure teenagers do something in return for their benefit. Geoff Mulgan, a former policy adviser to Tony Blair, says getting young people out of bed and into work will transform many parts of rundown Britain.

"The potential paybacks for really making a difference to this group exceed the payback you can get from almost any other area of public spending."

The Government has no choice. If it doesn't crack the Neet problem, it will have an ever expanding underclass on the margins of society. Girls like Leah, a 16-year-old living in Barking. She is a former Neet who estranged from her parents and spent years mixing with drug users and prostitutes.

Now she has a GCSE and is making her first steps towards a normal life. "If this hadn't fixed my head up when I did, I'd probably be dead and lying in my grave."

The Lost Generation is broadcast in the UK on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday, 24 August at 2000BST.

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