Part of growing older and wiser is the realisation that there is a flip side to every story. The flip side to the ever-rising proportion of 16-year-olds achieving GCSE grades A-C, is that the number leaving school with no qualifications whatsoever is increasing at a faster rate.
In 1996 50,000 pupils were not entered for any GCSEs at all, an increase of 11,500 from 1995. It is generally known that some schools withdraw lower-ability pupils from examinations to improve their league table scores, but persistently high levels of non-achievement among the nation's school-leavers has been causing alarm for some time.
Many of the teenagers who leave school with few qualifications - or none - persist in their failure; failing to complete youth training or dropping out of further education (Britain has a smaller share of 17 and 18-year-olds in full-time education than any major industrial nation). They often disappear from official statistics altogether, sucked into the black economy or petty crime at enormous expense to the nation. They have been aptly described as the "disappointed. . . disadvantaged. . . disaffected. . . disappeared".
One in five 17-year-olds is in neither education nor training; nearly one-third of further education students lacks basic literacy and numeracy; more than half those on Government-sponsored youth training schemes fail to get any qualification.
Whether this Government grows old enough and wise enough to make an impact in raising standards for this cohort remains to be seen. Any real success would be an important measure of its mettle. Before the election, David Blunkett, now Secretary of State for Education and Employment, frequently spelt out Labour's commitment to tackling disaffection and non-achievement in schools. Now in office there are signs of serious intent from the Government and a variety of initiatives are likely to be announced during the autumn.
One of these will be a review of National Targets for 2000. The National Advisory Council for Education and Training Targets (NACETT) called for this in the summer, partly due to the fact that some of its targets could not be met within the timescale; and partly because it felt a new Government with new commitments to raising attainment should undertake a review. Within two weeks of becoming Education Secretary, Mr Blunkett announced targets for English and maths for 11-year-olds to be reached by 2002. In its report NACETT also recommended the introduction of targets for 16-year-olds to mark "goals of attainment for the end of compulsory schooling".
Although the "provisional view" of the council is that there should be a level two target (five GCSE A-Cs or equivalent) for young people, it argues that there could also be a target for reducing the number of people without a qualification.
This would go some way towards appeasing critics oft single indicators, such as numbers achieving five GCSE A-Cs, the main vehicle for enabling schools to reach the National Education and Training Targets. Such benchmarks force some schools to skew their efforts to achieve targets at the expense of, say, providing skills of lasting benefit to all pupils in adult life. It is claimed that such distortion leads to dissaffection and declining standards among a growing cohort.
In other words, for a large number of children such manifestly unobtainable targets have the opposite effect of what they set out to achieve. An increasing number of 16-year-olds is dropping out of full-time or part-time learning.
Professor Alan Smithers, director of the centre for education and employment research at Brunel University, believes that to set out actual targets, rather than aspirations, for 16-year-olds would mean changing the nature of GCSE. He said: "GCSE A-C has evolved from O-level, a very high threshold for people to study A-level. To transfer this highly selective device into a worthwhile goal for everyone would mean redefining the qualification system at 16."
He argues for qualifications "genuinely related to destination" and the introduction of a clear occupational pathway that might prove more attractive to under-achievers and the disaffected. He said: "That would be more than the look-see visits currently available in GNVQ. These students need to be able to see very clearly what good a qualification is going to do them, where it is going to lead to."
Although there's no shortage of local initiatives for the disaffected, such as Link projects between FE colleges and schools where pupils undertake NVQs in college on day-release, or supported work experience programmes such as those run by voluntary organisations like Rathbone CI (Community Initiative) or by TECs, many of these are competing for the same sources of funding. The insidious effect of competitive bidding and short-term funding on these sorts of projects has been likened to young people passing through a revolving door going nowhere.
With this in mind the DFEE will launch New Start around the end of November. This consists of an innovative programme of work experience and key skills training run by a consortia of agencies to give more strategic coordination to the attempt to renew purpose in 14 to 17-year-olds who see no virtue in general education.
There is also a sense of urgency in putting in place good quality, appropriate qualifications for under-achieving pupils at key stage 4 and beyond. Last month the Government announced in a letter to college and employer groups that a Right to Study entitlement would be included in the autumn's Education Bill which would put every 16 and 17-year-old on the road to a proper qualification.
Over the past two years the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, now the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, has been pressing ahead with entry-level certification. This would provide "quality" syllabuses within a national strategic framework for those struggling below GCSE level G. Two years ago the Department for Education and Employment approved qualifications in numeracy, literacy and IT, such as the City and Guilds word power and number power, that meet agreed criteria broadly equivalent to levels 1, 2 and 3 of the national curriculum.
These are below foundation level but constitute a nationally recognised step towards GCSE and GNVQ. The next stage has been to introduce a certificate of achievement that extends to all national curriculum subjects. According to the QCA there is "tremendous demand" for the certificate of achievement which is on stream for the first time this year.
The next step will be to cover vocational areas and life skills. Sir Ron Dearing, in his 16 to 19 review, called for a national qualifications framework to streamline the present byzantine structure and the certificate has been fashioned in that spirit.
The aim is for "stringent quality assurance" to be put in place and for it to replace the bewildering array of entry-type qualifications on offer. "There are literally thousands out there," said one QCA officer, "we are trying to get rid of qualifications not doing much for students."
A consultation on 16 to 19 - taking Dearing forward - was launched by the Government last week, but QCA officers believe the certificate of achievement will play a key part in the qualifications framework.
They also believe it should contribute to performance tables - giving schools the opportunity to recognise achievement "in small but crucial steps, on track to GCSE or GNVQ". The Government is to consult on this point and the concept of entry-level is to be launched next year.
The Government also announced last week that it was putting a further Pounds 5.5million into the Careers Service in an attempt to stem the cost (currently Pounds 500m) of the 20 per cent of youngsters who drop out of A-level and GNVQ courses.
It remains to be seen what levels of funding the Government aims to put into other initiatives but the signs are that for the first time ever, the needs of the disaffected are to be placed fairly and squarely within the national educational framework.