Best way to keep bums on seats

In 1972, to disguise soaring unemployment, pupils were compelled to stay on an extra year to 16. Today, with plenty of work around, employers don't want unskilled labour, so ministers say everyone must stay in education or training to 18.

But the principle is the same - state education puts a sticking plaster over the cracks in a training edifice that is poorly maintained by business and commerce.

Plans to raise the leaving age were back in the limelight this week with a Learning and Skills Network conference and research by the CfBT Education Trust. Both raise serious doubts. The report warns that many of these unwilling conscripts could suffer more from low-status training than from the current alternatives.

The fundamental question is: why do it? The Government already has a target of 90 per cent participation by 2013. Do we need compulsion? Evidently lacking confidence in their policies, Alan Johnson and his team see a need to get tough.

The reason Government set a 90 per cent target in the first place was that senior advisers warned ministers that the other 10 per cent, while not unreachable, had multiple problems beyond learning difficulties - social, economic, family, medical and a range of others.

Further evidence reveals that similar policies overseas have been a flop.

In Canada, they resorted to banning drop-outs from learning to drive. Here, "refuseniks" will be criminalised, the victims of hare-brained schemes such as pound;50 fixed-penalty notices.

The best advice to ministers is drop the whole idea and, as researcher Mick Fletcher says (page 3), set a 100 per cent "voluntary" participation target for 2015. Meanwhile, employers should not take on young workers without in-house training or release for an apprenticeship to at least A-level standard.

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