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How young people are framed in government documents

ARA: A review of government documents has found that young people who are not in education, employment or training (NEET) are often framed as “particular kinds of problems”.

Lynda Lawton, Ara Institute of Canterbury’s Quality and Portfolio Manager, has extensive experience working with children, young people and their families – both as a social worker and an educator. She spent time teaching learners enrolled in the Youth Guarantee Scheme, aged from 15 to 18, many of whom had not done well at school or had dropped out altogether.

“What fascinated me the most about these young people was they had such potential, and often didn’t recognise their own strengths,” she says. “Many had not been encouraged by their families or schools, and felt like they didn’t fit in.”

Seeing many of these students gain qualifications and progress into careers in fields like social work and early childhood education prompted her to think about the ways in which NEET young people are represented.

“Young people who meet the NEET criteria are targeted for specific forms of government intervention, in order to engage them with education, work or training,” she says. “I started wondering about the ways they were framed and represented in government policies and documents.”

Lawton’s PhD research involved reviewing 12 government documents with a Post-structural Foucauldian Discourse Analysis. She used Carol Bacchi’s (2009) ‘What’s the problem represented to be’ analytic strategy, which involved posing questions to identify discourses and assumptions.

“I used a cross-section of documents because I realised the Ministry of Education documents had links to the Treasury and to Social Development, and so on. This approach allowed me to consider the similarities and differences between different departments.”

She identified that NEET young people were represented “as particular kinds of problems”, framed variably as risky, vulnerable, resilient, in a state of transition and as forms of human capital.

“The framing of NEET young people positioned them as an economic problem or a financial risk,” she says. “Having a lack of skills was presented as an economic liability – NEET young people might get into crime or claim benefits and cost the government money.”

Each ministry represented problems in slightly different ways.

“The Ministry of Youth Development was very strength-focused and talked about increasing young people's capabilities – this sounds great, but the assumed problem is a lack of capability and a need for improvement.”

She also found that some of the framing suggested certain outcomes.

“The name of Youth Guarantee, for example – the implication is subtle, but the scheme is presented as a guarantee. A guarantee for what? Is there such a thing as a guarantee?” she asks. “NEET young people may expect that gaining skills or knowledge will get them a job. But what if it doesn’t, or they end up in a job they could have gotten without these programmes? In a New Zealand Youth Guarantee fees free research study, at least one youth guarantee educator also questioned the implied ‘guarantee’ of these programmes.”

Lawton says language is important, and while many of these narratives are well-meaning, it is worth reflecting on the messages they send.

The discourses identified in the documents also overlooked the many structural deficits that contribute to the lives of NEET young people.

“There may be a shortage of available jobs, for example – those kinds of factors weren’t mentioned,” she says. “The underpinning assumption was that NEET young people themselves were the problem.”

Lawton says the findings have implications for educators, health practitioners and support providers.

“This can help us to make changes and improve the way that young people are thought about and treated by education and support services.”

The documents Lawton reviewed were created between 2015 to 2017 under the former National government.

“I would be interested in undertaking another document analysis looking at documents created under the current Labour government, which has presented itself as promoting social investment and wellbeing,” she says. “I’d also like to see how the COVID-19 pandemic has influenced discourses about NEET young people.”

  • Lynda Lawton is a Manager at Ara Institute of Canterbury Ltd and a part-time PhD student at the University of Canterbury. Lynda's background as a social worker and lecturer led to her interest in how young people who are not in education, employment or training (NEET) are constructed within wider government policy and documentation. Lynda has a particular interest in the ways that government polices and social practices intersect, and the implications that these intersections may have between learners and educators, clients and practitioners. Contact Lynda Lawton

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