Nearly one in ten teenagers aged 16 to 18 has dropped out of school, college and work, figures have shown.
Critics said ministers had failed to cut the number of so-called Neets – teenagers “not in education, employment or training” – since Labour came to power.
But the statistics were an improvement on previous years as more teenagers than ever took sixth-form courses or training in 2007.
Fewer 16-year-olds quit education for paid work when they finished compulsory schooling last year, according to provisional figures for England. And the proportion of Neets fell from 10.4 per cent in 2006 to 9.4 per cent in 2007.
This represented an estimated 189,000 16-18-year-olds out of work and not training or studying for qualifications. But in 1997, the figure was even lower, with 8.9 per cent of 16-18-year-olds in the Neet category.
Liberal Democrat schools spokesman David Laws said: “Given that the number of Neets has actually gone up since 1997, ministers cannot take any pride in these figures. One of the Government’s early pledges was to reduce the number of Neets. They have clearly failed to do so. With the economy slowing, there is a real risk that this category is going to further increase in size.”
But Schools Secretary Ed Balls said “good progress” was being made ahead of Government reforms to raise the education leaving age from 16 to 18. Mr Balls said: “It is really encouraging news that the number of young people who are not in employment, education or training has fallen again. By 2015 all young people will stay in education or training until they are at least 18.
“These latest figures show we are making good progress to ensuring that all young people have the opportunity to fulfil their potential and contribute to our economy in this new and fast-changing world.
“I want to see every young person able to do the best they can and that means more opportunities for training, more apprenticeships, relevant qualifications and high quality advice and guidance.”
By the end of 2007, 90.8 per cent of 16-year-olds were studying for A-levels or other courses, or training for work.
This was an increase from 2006 as fewer teenagers opted to start paid jobs, but the figure was still short of the 1994 level of 90.9 per cent.
Among all 16-18 year-olds, more than one in five – 21.3 per cent – had quit education and were either working or unemployed last year. The 2006 figure was 22.9 per cent. From 2013, the school and training leaving age will rise to 17 under the Government’s reforms. Two years later, the leaving age will be 18. A new set of diplomas, combining academic study and practical work experience, will be taught from September.
David Frost, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “It remains a worry there are still so many young British people not in employment, education or training.
“The Government is failing our youth by not providing them with the essential skills and attitude required to become productive members of society, as well as British business, who struggle to find a skilled and engaged workforce.”