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Cuts to courses could lead to permanent scars

Another week, another funding shortfall. To the shortage of money for 16 to 19 full-time education places and the threatened overspend of the Train to Gain scheme, we can now add the possibility that teenagers will have to be turned away from Entry to Employment courses.

Economists say that this recession has had a swifter than usual effect on unemployment, which usually lags behind other economic indicators. Certainly, that effect seems to have been rapidly felt in further education: more teenagers are trying to stay on in education to ride out a hostile job market, and those who would normally seek an apprenticeship are finding they have to look elsewhere too.

The shortage of Entry to Employment places will affect fewer than the numbers putting pressure on the main 16 to 19 budgets, but it is still significant.

Entry to Employment courses were designed to offer a chance of education and work to the teenagers who were most at risk of dropping out of the system. If the September guarantee of a place in education for every 16- year-old cannot be made to apply to them, it risks damaging the credibility of the whole system.

No one should doubt the harm that can be done to young people by being out of work with nothing to do.

David Blanchflower, now famed as the only member of the Bank of England's monetary policy committee to have seen this recession coming, has been warning of the consequences. Young people who suffer a significant period of unemployment have lower incomes for decades afterwards, he says. As he put it in a lecture earlier this year: "Unemployment while young creates permanent scars rather than temporary blemishes."

He has proposed raising the upper age of compulsory education to 18 immediately rather than waiting, along with an expansion in higher education places, to offer under-24s an alternative to the dole.

Professor Blanchflower has more than earned the right to be taken seriously, although there are questions over whether such drastic action is realistic.

Even if the hundreds of millions of pounds could be found to fund places for all, it is doubtful that schools and colleges could accommodate an imminent influx of another 100,000 or so students.

However, that does not mean ministers should not do as much as they can to reduce the damage done to a generation.

That means the Learning and Skills Council must try to redirect money from budgets under less pressure to try to solve the immediate problems. And it means the Chancellor must put education at the top of the agenda in his budget later this month, if the classes of 2008 and 2009 are not to be left behind.

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