Polly's NEETS

I hope my readers appreciate the sacrifices made in bringing this blog to the Net: after reading today's Polly missive on how to save the NEETs I have to admit to throwing up in my mouth a little.

In common with so many Polly columns, it takes a small collection of relatively undisputable facts ("the number of 16-year-olds staying on in education has fallen for the first time in years, raising Neets – those not in education, employment or training – by 8%", "Numbers of Neets were falling steadily until 2010, when the Cameron government snatched away that crucial £30 a week.") and builds an increasingly tall and rickety tower of a column whose base spreads beyond the rock of facts to the sand of speculation and the marsh of Polly's opinions.

Polly's pivotal contention is that it's far better for the unemployed youth to remain in any form of education than to seek a job:

At a time when leaving school without plans has never been a worse life choice, more teenagers are walking away to do nothing at all. Unemployment when young scars for life: studies show most are destined for a life of underpaid work, punctuated with no work.
I suspect that here Polly is (once again) falling into the trap of confusing correlation with causation. I would totally believe that the average wage of students with one or more A-level is at a statistically significant measurement about that of students with just GCSEs. What I would find harder to believe is that the marginal wage gain of the least able 20% of A-level students from their 2 years studying will outweigh that of equally-able GCSE students working 2 years in their chosen employment. Let's not forget that Educational Maintenance Allowance only pertains to the 16-19 age group so you can forget the degree premium for this argument.

Polly's claims centre around two propositions:

  1. The withdrawal of EMA for most students caused many of them to drop out of further education; and
  2. More NEETs are therefore unemployable due to their reduced educational qualifications.
I can believe the coupling of these propositions in the case of some students, but frankly find it hard to credit that it makes a material difference in most cases. Most students live with their parent(s) until age 16. At that age they became eligible for EMA. Are we to believe that they moved out of the parental house on that princely £30/week? I find that hard to credit. This was additional money for the household. In most cases, if the household could afford to support the student at age 15, they can do so at age 16. I'm sure the £30/week made life easier in many cases, but find it hard to credit that it made much difference to employment needs for the majority. Rather, I suspect that the prospect of a salary and cash-in-the-pocket trumped the nebulous benefits of A-levels or equivalent. And frankly, I can't blame them. Unless you get qualifications directly relevant to your area of employment, I can't see two years out of the job market doing half-arsed studying giving you much of an employment premium to someone demonstrating two years of employment in the area.

What the abolishment of EMA is about is making students do a practical calculation of what two years of education is worth to them. Why should the taxpayer (and, let us be clear, this means the full-time minimum-wage worker) be on the hook for the student's studying time if doesn't materially benefit them?

Lest we forget this is Polly, she reminds us:

Michael Gove as education secretary seems entirely preoccupied with more able children.
Yes Polly, God forbid that we should focus the spending of taxpayer money on those students who are most able to benefit from education. FFS.
Whenever he talks of "social mobility", he speaks of those from humble backgrounds soaring up to Oxbridge.
Precisely why this aim is a bad expression of social mobility escapes me. Maybe her own Oxbridge experience put her off studying:
...she won a scholarship to read history at St Anne's College, Oxford, despite gaining only one A-level ... During her gap year she worked for Amnesty International in pre-independence Rhodesia, before being expelled by the government ... After 18 months at Oxford, she dropped out, finding work in a factory and a burger bar and hoping to write in her spare time. She later said "I had a loopy idea that I could work with my hands during the day and in the evening come home and write novels and poetry, and be Tolstoy... But I very quickly discovered why people who work in factories don't usually have the energy to write when they get home."
Ladies and gentlemen, that is education. A shame that it burned up that scholarship money for Polly to make that discovery.

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