TEENAGERS who shun education or employment after leaving school risk being scarred for life by the decision, a new study has revealed.

It was found that 16 to 19 year olds who were not in education, employment or training (neets) in 1991 and 2001 suffered from a clear "scarring effect", when researchers who tracked them found they were far less likely to be leading healthy or productive lives years later.

The research, carried out for the Scottish Government, found that in 2011, those who had been neet a decade earlier were almost three times more likely to be unemployed or economically inactive compared to peers who had been learning or with jobs, while their physical and mental health was also significantly poorer.

Neets in 1991 and 2001 were 50 per cent more likely to be at risk of depression and anxiety while even those in the first group who went on to gain employment a decade later were still likely to be disadvantaged, with many dependant on low-status occupations.

The research paper stated: "The negative effect of neet status in 1991 was not fully discounted by the later engagement of employment or education, indicating the long-lasting detrimental effect of neet experiences."

The findings have been published with closing Scotland's attainment gap between the richest and poorest school pupils set to become a key battleground of next year's Holyrood election. Nicola Sturgeon has said she wants to be judged on her efforts to boost the life chances of those from poorer areas, while opponents have attacked the SNP's record over the past eight years.

It was found that those with no qualifications at 16 were up to eight times more likely to be inactive immediately after leaving school, while having a large number of siblings and living in social rented housing were also risk factors. There is a strong link between coming from a deprived area and failing to enter education, training or employment between the ages of 16 and 19.

The latest statistics show that around 21,000 young people in Scotland, or eight per cent of the country's young people, are classified as neets.

Iain Gray, Scottish Labour's education spokesman, said: "This report underlines how vital it is that we close the gap in our classrooms between the richest and the rest. The attainment gap isn't just locking our young people out of the jobs of the future, it is holding our whole country back. Building a stronger Scotland and a fairer nation for decades to come begins in our classrooms."

A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: "Recent monthly youth employment figures continue to show that more young Scots are finding jobs. Since the introduction of our Opportunities for All commitment we have seen record levels of school leavers moving on to positive sustained destinations.

"However, we are well aware of the risks of young people remaining out of education, work or training and have put considerable investment into supporting more young people into jobs, including action around Modern Apprenticeships and employer incentives. We have also announced over £10 million to deliver elements of Scotland’s Youth Employment Strategy in partnership with local government in recent months."