The new diplomas for teenagers may prove an effective weapon in reducing England’s stubbornly high “Neet” rates, initial evidence from the schools inspectorate suggests.

The proportion of young people not in employment, education or training – known as Neets – had fallen in the vast bulk of 23 areas studied by Ofsted where diplomas had been introduced.

Ofsted emphasised that it was “too early” to gauge the impact of the new qualifications – introduced across parts of England last autumn as a more hands-on alternative to A-levels and GCSEs and a more academic alternative to vocational certificates.

But experts are likely to pore over the Ofsted report, published on Monday, because a wide variety of attempts at solving the Neet problem nationally have all failed.

Neets are a pressing issue for policymakers because of strong evidence that young people who get off to a stuttering start in their working lives are permanently damaged. The job history of former Neets – even those now in their 40s – suggests they remain more prone to unemployment, or to low-paid, low-skilled work.

The Ofsted report concentrates on the introduction of diplomas in 23 districts, but also looks more broadly at local education and training for 14- to 19-year-olds in the same places.

It finds that “in 19 out of the 23 areas visited, the proportion of 14- to 19-year-olds not in education, employment or training had reduced in the last year, or over a longer period”. The visits were made between last September, when diplomas were introduced, and March – although students are likely to have formed plans to study diplomas some months before the September start.

The evidence that diplomas had directly reduced local Neet rates is partial rather than cast-iron. This is partly because in some cases Neet rates were already falling locally before diplomas were introduced. Another possibility is that Neet rates fell in these areas because of other successful new education policies for teenagers. Education for this age group has been given a broad revamp recently, of which the introduction of diplomas is a key part.

The report says that “retaining potentially disaffected 14- to 16-year-olds in education and increasing progression to education and training beyond 16” was “achieved most effectively” by “a variety of strategies”. It highlights techniques such as more “personalised learning”.

The study also supplies ammunition to critics of diplomas, by saying “the quality of teaching and learning” of the “functional skills” – everyday knowledge in maths, English and information technology – “varied considerably”.

It does not track what has happened to Neet rates in the 23 areas since March. They are likely to have risen in many, because the recession has hit young people disproportionately.

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