A press release was issued by the UK government on 4 July 2014 under the heading “New statistics show thousands more 16- and 17-year-olds embarking on apprenticeships than last year.”

The tone of the document is upbeat and positive:

The figures, collected from local authorities, reveal that in March this year compared to March 2013:
• more than 15% more 16- and 17-year-olds are in apprenticeships – up from 41,738 last year to 49,228 this year
• 27,832 more 16- and 17-year-olds are participating in education or training – up from 1,030,689 last year to 1,058,521 this year
• 8 out of 9 regions in England reported higher rates of young people in education or training compared to last year

Here are some findings of my own from the data that should give rise to concern:

The 41,738 16 and 17 year olds in apprenticeships (in England) represents 4.2% of the total number of such young people which is  1,172,260.

Of that total, 90.3% were in education, employment or training in March 2014 meaning that nearly 10% were not in education, employment or training (NEET) or were not accounted for.  Simple arithmetic tells us that this group amounts to 117,226 young people.  Wembley arena (capacity 90,000) would not be big enough to contain that number of people.

The government’s figures also reveal that in March 2013 the proportion not NEET was 88.9%.  So while they are congratulating themselves on increasing the number of apprentices by 7,490 compared with a year ago (8% of the capacity of Wembley) the number of NEETs remained virtually static at 9.7% as compared with 10.1% last year.

The official “spin” on this situation came from Skills and Enterprise Minister, Matthew Hancock, who the press release quoted as saying:

Further data published last month shows the lowest level of 16- to 18-year-olds NEET since records began – showing our long term economic plan is delivering for young people.

Of course, all of these calculations rest upon a rather big assumption which is that the government’s statistics can be trusted. Alas, I’m here to tell you that they can not.

Why is this?  Well, its really very simple.  The data used to be collected by local careers advice services as part of the Connexions Service which this government abolished back in 2010.  Prior to this the figures were to be taken with a small pinch of salt as there was pressure applied from on high to show improvements year on year and this resulted in a certain amount of “massaging” of the results.  On the whole however the results were reasonably accurate and they showed that the NEETs problem was an extremely hard nut to crack.  Since 2010 the job of gathering statistics about young people’s activity has been given to schools and local authorities with miniscule resources to carry this work out.  The political pressure to show improvements hasn’t gone away but the people on the ground to follow up school leavers and compile the data have.

So, to conclude,  the government’s (untrustworthy) figures show that roughly one in every ten 16-17 year olds is doing nothing much after leaving school – a problem that has been with us for many years and shows no sign of being solved – while they appear delighted that a mere 4 in every 100 are on an apprenticeship.  Oh dear!  I wonder what the real situation actually is?