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Braced for a teenage influx

Colleges expect to bear brunt of extending compulsory education up to 18. Obscure as the Learning and Skills Council may be to the person on the Clapham Omnibus, there is one thing which gives it some street cred - the invention of neets.

The term - meaning not in education, employment or training - is common currency outside the confines of the education world - making it stand apart from the spaghetti soup of acronyms with which we in the FE world are acquainted.

Now, as the Government attempts to increase the age of compulsory participation in education or training to 18, this previously overlooked collection of teenagers is destined to stumble into the history books.

Whether the teenage dropout can really be legislated out of existence, as ministers intend, will depend on whether a hardcore of refuseniks can been be persuaded, under threat of financial penalties, to take part.

There is considerable doubt as to whether the penalties would be enforceable or even appropriate. There is also uncertainty about what effect this will have on FE which has increased student numbers without enforcement.

The University and College Union has concerns about the ability of FE to soak up reluctant students without damaging the learning experience of the rest.

It says its members have mixed feelings after their experience of Youth Training Scheme in the 1980s, and the current practice of teaching under- 14s as part of the increased flexibility programme. Barry Lovejoy, the union's head of colleges, said: "We are very proud that FE offers a second chance. There is more flexibility towards students and a different kind of experience and we are concerned that there might be resentment if there was compulsion."

The National Learner Panel, established to provide ministers with soundings about FE from the perspective of students, has told Bill Rammell, the further and higher education minister, it is more divided about the issue than any other it has considered.

Members feel the policy would be "rendered meaningless" without being strongly enforced. They also worry about fines being imposed on the poorest families.

The dilemma is that, if a softly-softly policy allows poorer teenagers to slip through the net, it will be deemed by many to have failed.

Tom Wright chaired the panel last year and still works as an adviser as his replacement is still to be appointed.

He said: "Half of the members thought it was ludicrous and authoritarian to keep people in education up to 18. Whereas the other half thought it would benefit the country and the individual learners in the long run."

The Association of Colleges supports the Government's position, stressing college is not the only option on offer for teenagers and expresses frustration that the policy is represented in the media as "raising the school leaving age." This characterization does little to reflect the options on but, the fact remains that compulsion is the distinguishing feature of this policy.

The Association for College Management believes the reform will work as long as colleges can offer a suitably appetising menu of courses. It predicts people will struggle to remember what all the fuss was about. Nadine Cartner, its head of policy, said : "We are pro. We recognise there are issues about criminalising young people but we feel there are benefits to be had from this and eventually it will become natural in the same way that 16 seems natural at the moment."

Leading article, page 4.

Schools' perspective, TES page 1.

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