Written evidence submitted by Dr Ceri Brown, Dr Alison Douthwaite, Dr Nicola Savvides and Dr Ioannis Costas-Battle, University of Bath, Department of Education


Executive Summary

This evidence comes from a 3.5 year (2019-2022) EU-funded study (Orienta4YEL) to better understand and tackle the risk factors leading young people to become NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training).  Persistent low attendance is the primary indicator of an individual’s risk of NEET status and was therefore indirectly the focus of the study. The findings deepen understanding of the factors leading young people to drop-out of education and shed light on processes underpinning effective interventions to re-engage disadvantaged and vulnerable learners in education.

UK data was collected in South West England; the region with the highest rates of persistent absence across the UK.

We heard from 94 young people NEET/at risk of NEET from groups including, young people who are care-experienced, refugees or asylum seekers, carers, from mobile families, with SEND and mental and physical health challenges. We also heard from 36 educators, 10 Local Authority representatives working across in 15 different educational settings, from mainstream and specialist schools to Alternative Provision and Virtual Schools.

Findings support the proposed reforms focus on tackling severe absence by offering ‘support’ ahead of issuing fine and endorse an individualized ‘case by case’ approach. However, the framing of the issue of persistent attendance as a matter of changing ‘parental behaviourdoes not acknowledge the interaction between multiple domains of risk impacting educational engagement over time.

We propose


Key Insights

         The processes underpinning effective interventions to re-engage young people in education are the same, even when the activities undertaken are different, pointing to a common ‘pathway to change’.

         What matters most is establishing a trusting, supportive relationship with an educator who has the time and flexibility to ensure the young person’s wellbeing and welfare needs are prioritized and addressed.

         The cumulative disengagement that results in persistent absence leading to NEEThood results from a complex interplay of multiple risk factors.

         Our holistic 5 categories of risk framework organises multiple risk factors into key domains of influence; personal challenges, family circumstances, social relationships, institutional features of school, and structural factors. The positioning of the different domains of a child’s life according to their proximity to the young person across their educational journey enables deeper understanding of how different domains of risk interact in shaping, mediating or compounding risks in other categories.

         Young people and the adults who support them point to similar issues as being most significant in causing disengagement and attendance issues, but they focus on their presentation in different domains of the child’s life; while young people point to social relationships and institutional features of school as the most pressing categories, adults point to structural factors and personal challenges. Recognition of the different ways issues can present can help ensure that children, educators and families all pull in the same direction in tackling persistent absence.



         Offer the Pathway to Change to guide schools’ efforts to support young people experiencing persistent absence

         Apply the 5 categories of risk framework to understanding the complexity and interactions between the different domains of a child’s life that shape attendance, therefore challenging simplistic conceptualizations of single factor issues, or placing ‘blame’ for attendance issues within one singular domain of risk.

         Ensure the proposal acknowledges the way different areas of risk compound issues for the families of disadvantaged and vulnerable learners to ensure schools themselves do not fall back on simplistic or deficit views, which risks exacerbating attendance problems, for example in considering how negative communications home (institutional risks) may lead to reduced parental trust in schooling (family risks), which then reduce a child’s motivation to attend school (personal risks).

         Add clarity around which school personnel might offer support and that sufficient training is offered (such as familiarity with the 5 categories of risk framework and the Pathways to change model.) The current attendance officer role has developed from an administrative function rather than an educational one, therefore training may be particularly necessary.

         Consider funding an engagement and attendance champion in schools with the time and resources to undertake individualised or small group case work in order to understand the risks to persistent absence (see risk framework) and unpick them (see Pathways to Change model)



Of particular value for this call is our Pathway to Change (Figure 1), a model of 5 mechanisms that underpin effective support strategies for young people who are disengaged, severely absent leading to NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training).

This model has been presented in an academic paper in the International Journal of Adolescence and Youth  and is also explained in this short video aimed at educators.

In trialing and evaluating support interventions across 11 diverse education settings, we found that the processes by which effective interventions build or strengthen educational engagement were the same despite the activities undertaken being very different. These mechanisms could usefully guide schools in designing effective interventions to increase engagement and attendance while allowing flexibility to tailor them for specific individuals, groups and contexts.

Personalised support sessions, for individuals or small groups allow the flexibility necessary to tailor sessions to their specific needs and interests. This might involve small adaptations, like taking time for conversations about their wider lives. For young people whose mental/physical health problems make leaving the home difficult, and those experiencing extreme turbulence in their lives, flexibility over the platform, format and timing of sessions can be key.

At the base of the Pathways to Change model are foundational mechanisms, essential at the outset of work with the young person. These enable the facilitating mechanism of building confidence and self-esteem which in turn leads to the two outcome-generating mechanisms. These lead directly to engagement with education and work goals. More detailed explanation follows below.

Note that, in all instances, the interventions trialed targeted the young people themselves and were led by a skilled educator with experience and insight into the challenges facing vulnerable and disadvantaged young people, working with small caseloads or on a one-to-one basis over a sustained period.







Description automatically generatedFigure 1: Pathway to Change: A 5-step set of strategies to guide effective interventions to tackle disengagement and persistent absence


Mechanism 1: Supporting emotional wellbeing and general welfare

Educators identified supporting wellbeing as important because it demonstrated care to the young people, many of whom were accustomed to not having their needs met and required help to unpick and address their issues.  This often involved small mechanisms to support coping with social challenges, allowing the time to stop and discuss friendship issues, accompanying young people on their journey to school, or ensuring interactions were on a forum that felt manageable for the young person (online, text chat or face to face). Making space to address external issues within sessions and being highly flexible were seen to have a cumulative impact. A medical support teacher commented:

“you’ve got to put it into the context of their life, if there’s other issues arise or other needs that need to met, maths will be secondary.” (Virtual School educator)

Young people frequently attributed the success of an intervention to ‘improved mental health and motivation’ and pointed to the advocacy of a persistent, supportive adult as fundamental:

they didn’t give up on, even when I was hard to get hold of… found a way to keep me on track” (re-engaged NEET male, 17)




Mechanism 2: Generating a sense of feeling cared for and supported

Ongoing contact with an educator who supported them with issues outside school was seen by young people as integral. One-to-one and small group work helped them feel secure, enabling a trusting relationship to develop. Young people valued contact with an educator who:

              “proper gets me” (Autistic student, 14 , Alternative Provision)

Educators saw showing interest and involvement in their day-to-day lives as a foundational process to counter the cumulative negative effects of being overlooked within large group teaching; 

building that rapport and chatting about what they’re having for dinner…is just as important as the actual education-based session because it was all part of building trust before the learning could take place.” (Medical Tuition educator)

Where young people had been struggling in mainstream with undiagnosed conditions, inadequate educational support, or had been absent for extended periods due to mental/physical health issues, foundational processes required more time and effort. Autistic learners in an Alternative Provision, for instance, traumatized by mainstream experiences and needed extended time in this phase before being able to engage in group interactions or formal work. 

Mechanism 3: Building confidence and self-esteem

Young people and educators saw this as an outcome of the first two mechanisms.

when you increase their emotional wellbeing and welfare, everything starts to flow so it improves their self-esteem.” (Charity NEET project educator)

Educators said one-to-one support enabled the flexibility to personalize provision to build confidence. Progressing at a comfortable pace, exploring personalized pathways for education and bespoke sessions building on young people’s interests were key factors enabling this mechanism.

Young people emphasized the social dimension of self-confidence, describing how the support enabled them to be more social, speak up more, and be around new people.

Mechanism 4: Facilitating autonomy and ownership over learning and achievement

Young people highlighted the increased educational aspirations that led on from the newly-acquired self-belief in their ability to envisage achievable educational pathways.

They often attributed raised aspirations to the realization that non-linear and alternative trajectories existed and were possible.

Educators also stressed the importance of autonomy and having some genuine choice over what they chose to focus on.

for some young people it’s the first time that [educational] relationships are built on trust and individual ownership and individual target setting and are not drive by a statutory outcome.”


Mechanism 5: Building a positive learner identity

The final mechanism involves identity work; building the young person’s sense of belonging and fitting-in was seen as the ultimate mechanism for generating participation or re-engagement with education. One educator explained;

We end up pigeon-holing ourselves through our actions and the way that we are within work or school environments. An [intervention] like this allows young people to perhaps learn to portray themselves in a different way… and quite often the young people we’re working with struggle in school because their identity is already set.” (Service Lead, Charity NEET Project)



Of particular relevance to the call for evidence regarding disadvantaged and vulnerable young people is the comprehensive framework of 5 categories of risk factors developed through our research (Figure 2).

Our 5 Categories of risk framework;


These 5 risk categories reflect the domains of challenge causing persistent absence and disengagement:

Critical to the model is the understanding that risks produced in any one category can shape or worsen risks created in others, for example negative communications from school to parents (institutional risk) can lower parental trust in the value of education (family risk).

This model enables the full spectrum of challenges in the unique circumstances of each child to be identified, to explore with the child or parent/carer which are the most pressing risks contributing to persistent absence. By facilitating discussion about how risk categories may interact, it can help identify where best to focus resources.


Description automatically generated

Figure 2: The 5 categories of risk framework


Personal challenges are always with the young person so form the model’s innermost circle. These are factors that a child is born with (e.g. SEND, abilities), acquires (e.g. mental health difficulties) or experiences (e.g neglect, irregular transitions, trauma). Young people’s responses to experiential challenges (e.g. truanting, difficulty in trusting others, youth offending) and their outlook or world view (e.g hope, pessimism, aspirations) are individual in so far as they are internally held, but are also a product of many contextual circumstances.

Risk factors in other categories constrain and shape the individuals response as they wrestle with the barriers and challenges they face. For instance, trying to build motivation or resilience, without considering the impact of other factors risks a simplistic, deficit views of absent youngsters as being unmotivated or lacking in aspiration.

The consultation document rightly acknowledges that ‘an absence is often a symptom of wider issues a family is facing and that local partners should work together to understand the barriers to support. This framework would support schools in enacting this. Inclusion of examples of ways that barriers in other areas might impact attendance could strengthen the guidance.


The family unit is the first external sphere of influence that most young children experience and remains a primary social influence across their lifespan. This domain therefore appears next in the model. It includes;

These factors are influenced by other categories. For instance parents’ aspirations for their child may be affected by the child’s personal challenges such as SEMH or SEND needs. Discussing the factors that lead to entrenched absence and disengagement, one young person said:

When [young people] lose connection with their mums and dads […] there is nothing holding them back from making their own choices, saying “I’m not doing school, I’m going to sit around at my mum’s house and play games all day” (Male 14, SEND School).”

This illustrates the complex interplay of family factors and personal factors (agency) and how they can result in absence. It also contrasts with way that Family Circumstances were framed in deficit terms by some Educators:

[some parents] have no real skill in how to be a parent and therefore it breaks down and their children become difficult to manage (Academy School Leader).

The consultation document details that legal intervention will be considered ‘where support has not been successful’ or ‘engaged with.Staff responsible for implementing this new legal intervention framework should understand that barriers in other areas can impact on risks in, for example family circumstances. This would help them better tailor support, and reduce the risk of the offered support being ‘unsuccessful’ because it is unsuitable, rather than due to parental fault.


This includes all types of relationships outside the family; authority-figures at school, peer group or supporting professionals. The influence of this domain increases as children age and is particularly marked during adolescence when young people look outside the family and seek to define themselves as independent social actors.

A recurrent issue here for young people was difficult relationships with teachers. An illustrative example is:

You sort of get a vibe off some teachers …they raise their voice, shout a lot, you sort of get that they don’t like you at all (Female 16, Cloudy Academy).

Educators, however highlighted social anxiety and difficulties with large groups, for instance,

I think peer anxiety is huge at the moment…they’re frightened of people of their own age. They are really conscious about who those people are, and what they might be thinking about them and how they might or might not get on with them [Academy Pastoral Lead].

Consideration of ways that institutional factors and expectations constrain and shape relationships at school, and how personal challenges such as SEND or undisclosed trauma might impact how children experience schooling interactions moves beyond deficit views of young people’s interpersonal skills.


Young people spend a lot of time in school but the influence of institutional factors reduces when they are not there, so this domain is positioned further out in the model.

Each aspect of institutional experience can affect attendance and engagement.

Material and environmental aspects like overly hot, cold, noisy or crowded classrooms may be hard to tolerate for some young people. Their ability to tolerate these may be constrained by personal challenges such as SEND, mental health, or social relationship issues with peers.

Organizational policies such as zero tolerance behaviour policies may result in frequent visits to isolation rooms or internal exclusions. This may interact with Structural Factors where constraints to budgets mean staff lack time to unpick the issues underlying poor behaviour, leading to a weakening sense of belonging and disengagement.

Personal challenges might prevent an individual from fitting-in with the organisational schooling structures. Children with mental health difficulties may struggle to access full-time schooling; bullying  and exclusion from friends make young people more vulnerable to weakly defined or inconsistent behaviour management systems; a lack of routine or multiple demands on the young people within the family home may make it difficult to comply with structured and time-monitored schooling routines.

The rigidity and inflexibility of schooling was often cited as a factor leading to disengagement and absence by both young people and educators.


This includes factors such as economic disadvantage, national policy and the education system, which can all impact young people’s engagement and attendance. It is situated on the outside of the model because this category of risk is least likely to be affected by other domains, although the individuals’ life course and absence can be influenced by structural factors.

Structural factors can directly influence attendance of disadvantaged young people for instance through the availability for transport in rural areas to enable a physically disabled young person to attend suitable educational provision. Family challenges, such as lacking a car, or a parents’ mental/physical health challenges, may compound the barriers to attendance. Personal Challenges may be compounded by an inability to attend, so that if transport is eventually secured, the young person’s mental health, self-esteem and trust prevent them attending.


Young people and the educators who support them highlight different domains of the child’s life as significant in contributing to disengagement and absence, however there is commonality between the issues they raised. (See Table 1) Points of alignment could be useful areas for policymakers and schools to target when working to increase attendance and engagement.

Whereas young people stressed Institutional factors and Social Relationship Factors, educators pointed to broader Structural Challenges and the impact of Personal Challenges.










Table 1: key factors raised by young people and educators as significant in causing absence and disengagement

Factors Stressed by

Young People

Factors Stressed by


Institutional Factors

Social Relationship Factors

Structural Factors

Personal Challenges


Rigidity and inflexibility of rules, timings and environment


Behaviour management approaches


Large class sizes


Pressure around academic performance.





Feeling different, judged and singled out


Bad experiences and negative relationships with teachers


Not feeling cared about


Peer pressure


Difficulty navigating friendships.



Requirement for post-16 maths and literacy


Lack of funding and time to meet young people’s needs


Non-flexible curriculum


Poorly managed transitions


Unclear pathways



Low self-esteem or self-confidence


Mental health problems






Low achievement


Low motivation, aspiration or expectation



While educators focused on structural factors (inadequate time and resources to meet individual need), young people, (possibly unaware of external forces limiting teachers’ agency), experienced these challenges as features of school life, talking instead of Institutional factors such as feeling uncared for and under pressure in an inflexible environment

Similarly, young people often highlighted specific challenges they face due to low support from home, such as caring responsibilities, pressure to earn money, lack of guidance. In contrast, educators tended to individualise the issues, referring to more generalised consequences for the young person, such as becoming ‘difficult to manage,’ having low aspirations, or poor parenting skills.

Recognising the differences between educators and young peoples’ perceptions of the factors causing absence can help educators to highlight to young people the impact of interventions on the crucial areas of institutional and social relationships (even if they are designed to target other key domains).


Ceri Brown, Alison Douthwaite, Nicola Savvides & Ioannis Costas Batlle (2022) Five mechanisms for tackling the risks to NEEThood: introducing a pathway to change to guide educators’ support strategies, International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, 27:1, 457-474, DOI: 10.1080/02673843.2022.2130082

Ceri Brown, Patricia Olmos Rueda, Ioannis Costas Batlle & Joaquín Gairín Sallán (2021) Introduction to the special issue: a conceptual framework for researching the risks to early leaving, Journal of Education and Work, 34:7-8, 723-739, DOI: 10.1080/13639080.2021.2003007

Ceri Brown, Alison Douthwaite, Ioannis Costas Batlle & Nicola Savvides (2022) A multi-stakeholder analysis of the risks to early school leaving: comparing young peoples’ and educators’ perspectives on five categories of risk, Journal of Youth Studies, DOI: 10.1080/13676261.2022.2132139

Ceri Brown (2014) Educational Binds of Poverty: The Lives of School Children, Abingdon, Routledge

Urie Bronfenbrenner (2005) Ecological systems theory (1992) in U.Bronfenbrenner (Ed.). Making human beings human: Bioecological perspectives on human development (pp.106-173) Sage Publications

February 2022