When NEETs have something to celebrate

In March, our youth training company held a graduation ceremony for our students. Like their peers on the verge of finishing their studies, there were lots of conflicting emotions: they were excited and nervous, looking forward to the future and reflecting on the past.

But that’s where the similarities end. Because when they came to us, our students were NEETs (not in education, employment or training). Graduation is a celebration of how these young people can overcome adversity. And, just as importantly, it’s a way of showing wider society they can, and do, achieve. 
963,000 people aged 16-24 were NEET at the end of last year - that's 13.1% of people in this age group. In England, the regions with the highest proportion of 16-24 year olds who are NEET are the North East, Yorkshire & Humber, and West Midlands.
Graduation day can have a kind of sadness, too: sometimes there’s no-one to watch the students collect their certificates, even though this will be the first time any of them have completed a course – or, indeed ‘achieved’ anything.
So in the weeks leading up to our celebration, we spend our time encouraging them, re-enforcing the need for attendance on their courses right up to the very last hour. And we recruit our own families to be a part of the cheer squad on the big day. 
The 20-week course they have completed has helped to break down so many barriers: social, educational, emotional, financial. But the challenges never stop for these young people. 
There was Simone who at the time of graduation was 38 weeks pregnant and figuring out the path to motherhood all alone. And then there was Jacob who, despite hardly attending school because of bullying, has overcome his shyness to complete his Level 1 in Performing Arts. There’s also Perry who is a carer, and  Noel who is homeless. The list goes on.
What would have happened to these young people if they hadn’t found an educational refuge with us?
We know only too well that the consequences for them of disengagement are enormous — drug and alcohol abuse, mental and physical health problems, and high risk of involvement in crime.
And once young people become NEETs, they are, by definition, hard to reach. So the cost of providing support rockets. And society, too, pays a high price.
Their schooling has, let’s face it, not done much for them. They’ve left without meeting the all-important benchmark GCSE target and their employment opportunities are zilch. Most have had very tough lives and faced huge problems: they desperately need a second chance if they’re to get on track for a successful and fulfilled adult life.
So we scoop them up and put them through a 20-week course which embeds literacy and numeracy in sport, health and beauty, performing arts and catering. The vast majority leave us to go on to college or work.
I felt huge pride as they took their place on stage to receive their certificates – and in some cases to make a speech. I want their achievement with us to take them not on to good things, but to great things. I hope that they can allow the past not to define them and stare out at a future with a sense of pride, courage and excitement.   
 A new group of students have just embarked on their 20-week learning journey with us. But their predecessors don’t ever leave us. We bump into them in the street and smile when we hear they’ve moved on to college or a job to start on a new adventure.
They deserve it.
Amy Lalla is director of leading youth training provider Let Me Play. http://www.letmeplay.co.uk/

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