Rescue Our Schools

What’s wrong with Being NEET? (Not in Education, Employment or Training)

Not for the long term, but for the short term it’s something that should be tolerated and even encouraged for young people still finding their way, after, (or even before), school finishes at 18.
Just over a month ago a good friend of mine said that she had received a letter from the local council stating that if her 17-year-old daughter does not return to sixth form or start another course she may lose her child benefit. When I got home that day, I had the same letter. The letter suggested that our children would be put on the NEET register if something was not done about rectifying the situation, and we could lose our child benefit. But what if you have a child that has had a very negative experience at school for the last 11-12 years and has had enough?

NEET is a term given to young people between the ages of 16 and 24 that are not in full time education, employment or training. It is a term used by the government to analyse the amount of young people that are not contributing to the British economy and is not to be confused with young people taking ‘a gap year’. The term NEET tends to be applied to the lower classes or to young people who do not continue school at 16 or 17 for various (probably personal) reasons and is seen to be a detrimental state which leads to prolonged unemployment. The Gov.uk website states ‘Studies have shown that time spent NEET can have a detrimental effect on physical and mental health, and increase the likelihood of unemployment, low wages, or low quality of work later on in life.’ But what about the young people who have not fitted the academic model of schooling in recent years and just need time to recover from the bruises of a system that never suited them, what about the ones who need to find the time to recover and discover what it is they are good at, re-build their shattered self- esteem and set off from there? These are the ones the educational system unconsciously rejects, the ones they don’t know what to do with and the ones that don’t tick their boxes. They deserve a future too, don’t they?
NEET is a term we need to get rid of, because ‘a gap year’ or ‘a gap six months’ sounds much better. It has a middle-class ring to it that the lower class or lower ability kids who are not university bound do not qualify for, in the same way that they did not qualify for so many things whilst at school. Why are we labelling them again so soon? And making sure that they start their adult lives with a big question mark over them.
Many of our ‘average ability’ kids these days don’t get into their school’s sixth form because they have not acquired the necessary grades to do so, so they scrabble around at 16 looking for what they think is the next best thing. This is the first big rejection for them and it cuts deeply. It comes at a time when they have summoned everything they have in their academic basket to achieve a range of 3 to 5s for their GCSEs. They want to do A Levels because they know that this is what the ‘smart kids’ do, but with their grades it is going to be a very long and high ladder to climb, so they are left with a choice of L2 and 3 Btec courses at FE college which is the poor relation to A Levels and they feel like they’ve failed again. So, they try for a little while, and maybe it suits some and they are successful, but not all of them and many drop out. They say ‘it was rubbish and I never wanted to do it anyway’ and retreat to their rooms to mourn. If you’re 17 and never felt as though you were good enough, why are you going to put all your energy into something you think is second rate from the outset? Now, I’ve taught on these courses and know how much the lecturers put in, but trying to heal the scars of 11 years is a big ask and in many cases it’s not possible. The damage is done.
The time that it takes for a young person to heal after their perceived failures differs from person to person, so the time they need to sit and reflect on their lives and work out a coherent plan for the future is also going to differ. Is this time NEET or is it the natural amount of time that almost everyone needs to decide what they want to do? I used to tell my students on a daily basis that I was 52 and still had not made up my mind what I wanted to do with my life, at which they laughed at and replied ‘but miss, you’re a teacher!’ The thing was, most of the time I really meant it. I can’t remember why I wanted to be a teacher and at that stage in my career I used to wonder on a daily basis why I was still a teacher. I was 52. Why are we expecting everyone to know exactly what they want to do by the age of 17?
Even those that are academically successful and pushed into choosing 6 universities and filling in their UCAS form at 17 are not completely sure. I spent years ‘helping’ young people choose courses to apply for and write their personal statements so that they would be accepted into their first-choice university. I did it because I believed that they deserved to get the same opportunities as their private school counterparts out of a drive for social justice so that they would be able to compete for the best jobs when they’d finished. I even went so far as to encourage one of my best academic students to strive to become prime minister one day. I now wonder how many of them made it through the first year and whether they have £60000 worth of debt instead of a great career. We don’t encourage young people to take the time to reflect before they go off to university and really get their money’s worth, doing what they enjoy and what will lead them on to a career in the area they are passionate about. No, of course we don’t – they might end up NEET mightn’t they? It is the more affluent young people that take a year out to do an internship or go travelling and ‘find themselves’, the local kids from the council estates or the lower ability will be NEET and we can’t allow that. The Independent ran an article in 2016 which stated ‘Almost a third of first-year students have either already dropped out of university or are thinking of leaving in the summer’ which suggests that we are pushing them into something they are not prepared for and landing them with a £15000 debt into the bargain. This is money they have paid and got nothing out of, and will be added to the new course they start when they do eventually find the degree that they want to do.
I’m not suggesting that any young person should be NEET for long, but give them the chance to take a breath or time to heal from the battering and bruising experience they’ve had at school, and take away the label – being NEET is not something anyone should have to put on their CV.

Schools like quantifiable results, they are institutions that are judged on outcomes, and senior staff and teachers are under pressure to evidence progress for each student. I believe that the subjective nature of Art and Design poses a challenge for the school environment because art is not easily assessable by teachers, and if it is assessed, it needs a different approach to that of other subject areas.

In my role as an art educationalist and art advocate I often consider the role of assessment in the primary art classroom. I am interested in how, as art teachers and teachers who have to teach art, we can incorporate assessment without dampening creativity and negatively impacting the environment conducive to making art.

In my regular part-time teaching post, the children use sketchbooks and I never mark/grade their work. I often feel guilty about the time and energy that ‘normal’ class teachers spend marking compared to me, but my not defacing the children’s art or interfering with their books, is a deliberate art teaching approach. I have discussed this ‘no marking method’ many times with the children, I ask them how they know they are making progress in art without my grades, ticks, crosses and written comments in green pen. The children always report back that they like not having their work marked, that they know they have made progress because they feel it and they gain confidence using the relevant medium. The children that I have spoken with about art assessment say that they like being in the art room because they feel free and that they are not better or worse than anyone else, they say this is a contrast with other subject areas.

The art room environment is a special one and it feels like a safe space where children gain confidence in their own time, through exploring different materials and processes. They use their own ideas, experiences and imaginations to create art and that work is individual to them, like real artists. It is not my place to say what is right or wrong and to do so could do harm to the children’s self-esteem, rather than building their confidence in art.

As a specialist primary art teacher, I am fortunate in that I teach all children every year, this means that I can play the long game. I am not limited to one year with each child. So, if Tommy doesn’t quite get the proportions of the face right in his self-portrait, but he is enthusiastic and happy in his art lessons, I don’t need to worry (or worry him) about it. I know that there is time and he’ll get there at some point with my help – not all children develop at the same pace and that is okay.

The other important element to this no marking method, is that I am constantly modelling how to use the materials and teaching the children new techniques, I do this when I, as the teacher, can see they are ready for this input. In the classroom, I am continually responding to individual children, or as I call them, artists, as they are working. This is the best way to develop their skills and help them to manifest their ideas i.e. as they are in the act of creating. Feedback given during the lesson means they can implement changes and review and refine work in real time. The primary art classroom can and should feel like an artist’s studio, with artists working away, engrossed in the creative process, experimenting with materials and evolving works of art.

None of this is to say that I don’t know whether the children are making progress. I know that they are because I plan all their art lessons, and I believe that good planning is key to pupil progress. I map the art curricula out across year 1 – year 6 and I ensure that there is progress built in across key skill areas i.e. drawing, painting, collaging, sculpting and printing, of course I include other mediums but these are the main areas that I tend to cover. I also know they are making progress because I see it in their work and I give them specific praise about that e.g. ‘I can see the way you have used different brushstrokes there has been really effective at showing the movement in the water. Would you mind showing the rest of the class how you did that?’

I believe that primary children should keep the same sketchbook all the way through school, unless it gets so full of art that it needs replacing. With this in mind, if you were to look at a year 1 child’s sketchbook you would see progress in their drawing, but better still, if you looked at that same child’s sketchbook in year 4 or year 6, you would absolutely see progress. Furthermore, if you sat with that child and discussed their work as you flicked through their sketchbook, then you would hear a genuine understanding of how that child overcame challenges with media, how they developed their ideas and in which cases they were inspired by other artists.

As far as I know, no one in government is asking for grades in primary Art and Design, and I have not really heard of parents asking to see Art and Design results. I have however, repeatedly seen parents, governors, Ofsted inspectors and all manner of visitors walk into a primary art lesson and respond to the uniquely calm, focused and creative environment with awe and wonder.

A good art provision in primary schools supports well-being.

My name is Emily Gopaul and I am an artist, art teacher, author and art education advocate with Rescue Our Schools. I recommend approaches that primary schools can adopt to ensure children have access to a high-quality art curriculum.

The arts are steadily being downgraded across our education system, but primary art education should be non-negotiable and should not be side-lined for other subjects, or SATS preparations. There are many reasons why I advocate art in the primary sector but on a fundamental level, creativity is our human right and it makes us feel good.

Recently, I read an article by Andy Cope about children’s mental health. The article highlights that statistics show that one in 10 children – an average of three in every classroom – has a diagnosable mental health problem. I agree with Cope that we should be looking at how we can prevent young people from experiencing mental health difficulties in the first place.

Stresses in life, whether as an adult or child, are inevitable, but creativity – be it the visual arts or otherwise – can serve as an outlet for stress and anxiety; this does not have to be in an art therapy context. Creative endeavours can be a way to express emotions that are difficult to process or vent in other ways. Sometimes art communicates the artist’s experiences so well that we, the viewers, are informed or moved by the work. I am reminded of the many famous artists who did this so well: Frida Kahlo, Virginia Woolf, Billie Holiday and Edvard Munch with The Scream, to name but a few of my personal favourites.

Other times though, outcome is not important. It is the creative act, the process in itself that provides us some respite from life. When we are absorbed in making, nothing else matters, the rise of the adult colouring book is an example of how many of us have realised this. Some of us are fortunate enough to have found or rediscovered some such creative activity, one where time passes without us realising and we enter a focused, almost meditative state.

In my experience, when children have the time and the space to be creative, without the pressures of achieving a particular outcome or grade, they experience a sense of calm and freedom that can feed into their lives and even enhance their academic achievements. In my thirteen years of teaching art, I have spoken with many primary and secondary school children about why they enjoy art, and there appears to be a consensus. Children report that art makes them feel free, that art is good because there are no rules, that they feel peaceful when they create art and that they feel happy and calm in the art studio. More times than I can count, teachers have happened upon a class of mine working in absolute silence and commented upon it. What is always remarkable is that I hardly ever demand this silence. It happens naturally when the children are absorbed in their art work, and when that happens the creative, calm atmosphere is tangible; I call it being ‘in the zone’.

Many times, I have known children who are disengaged with school or experiencing difficulties at home or otherwise to seek out the art studio as a refuge and quietly sit and create during breaktimes or after school. I was one of those children, and had it not have been for a love of art that was inspired in me by my primary teacher, I would not have known that I could utilise art and the art department as a safe space, when life as a teenager became overwhelming.

As an art teacher, I am passionate about the skills and visual language that primary art can impart, the visual literacy that it can support, the beautiful artworks the children may produce, the history and geography that can be learned through art and the cultural enrichment to be gained through a good primary art curriculum. Almost more than all of this though, I am sure that space and time to be creative is vital to us as well-rounded human beings.

A good art provision contributes to a positive primary school atmosphere, which reflects the extent to which the school takes care of the needs of the children. Furthermore, if we are introduced to the magic of creativity at a young age, it can serve as a resource for us throughout life, and support our emotional and mental well-being as adults too.