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Dropping out of the picture

Tony Blair pledged eight years ago to improve the lives of deprived teenagers. They're still waiting. Jon Slater reports

Among the missed targets which scar the Government's record, there is one that gets less attention than might be expected.

For disadvantaged teenagers, Labour's failure to fulfil its pre-1997 pledge to re-engage a "lost generation" is just as damaging as its missed targets in literacy and numeracy, truancy and GCSEs for the least able.

In 1996, during his final push towards Downing Street, Tony Blair wrote an article for the London Evening Standard setting out his plans to help young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

"My pledge is that by the year 2000, all young people will have an intermediate qualification, roughly equivalent to five GCSEs, including core skills by the age of 18," he wrote. "Anything less will not even begin to equip us for the future."

All 16 to 18-year-olds would be in either education or jobs with training, he also said.

These were always ambitious goals. Those who were going to be hardest to reach included teenage mothers, petty criminals and young people with severe learning difficulties. The Conservatives had a similar target to ensure all young people achieved level 2 qualifications yet post-16 participation, which had risen steadily with the introduction of the GCSE, plateaued after 1994.

After seven years in power, the Government has made considerable progress at primary level but little or none towards these targets for older pupils.

In some respects, the position has worsened. Official figures show one in 10 16 to 18-year-olds is without work or education, up from one in 11 in 1997.

Target 2000, the promise that all 19-year-olds would get level 2 qualifications, was quietly shelved once Labour came to power.

It was replaced in 2000 by a new target to increase the number of 19-year-olds gaining level 2 qualifications from 75 per cent in 2002 to 78 per cent this year and 81 per cent in 2006. On current trends, even these less ambitious aims look likely to be thwarted.

Eight years after Mr Blair's article, a quarter of 19-year-olds do not have a level 2 qualification. The figure for teenagers from poor backgrounds is more than two in five. This failure has occurred despite a raft of measures.

A new Connexions careers service, means-tested grants of up to pound;40 per week for those staying in full-time education (known as educational maintenance allowances), the right to time off work to train, and curriculum reform have all been introduced with varying degrees of success.

The Government recently announced a review of the careers service after complaints that Connexions staff have been giving misleading advice.

According to Graham Lane, education chair of the Local Government Association, advice often suits schools and colleges rather than the young people it is supposed to benefit.

Curriculum reform, including the introduction of AS-levels and vocational alternatives to academic A-levels and GCSEs, has also disappointed. Instead of acting as a bridge between GCSEs and A-levels, AS-levels have been perceived as a barrier, another test for students already sick of them.

The rebranding of vocational courses has failed to have much impact on the traditional disdain shown by English pupils for non-academic options.

Hopes that the right to time off to learn would encourage young employees to continue in education remain just that. There is no systematic evaluation of the policy's impact. In the words of Julian Gravatt from the Association of Colleges, "the Government has not pushed it too hard. It has not put much pressure on employers".

On the plus side, evaluation of educational maintenance allowance pilots suggest that they have increased the number of young sters on post-16 courses by six percentage points. The proportion of 16 to 18-year-olds staying on has risen from 73.8 per cent in 1997 to 75 per cent in 2002. But international comparisons show other countries do far better.

Figures from the respected Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development show that of 30 countries only Mexico, Italy, New Zealand, Portugal, Slovakia and Turkey have worse staying-on rates. In some countries participation rates are above 90 per cent. But the extension of EMA pilots nationwide from September next year could help.

However, there are concerns that Capita, the firm which is taking over the running of the scheme from councils, is not doing enough to publicise it.

And, experts agree, grants, however generous or well publicised, will not be sufficient to close the gap.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, says:

"Unless we get a proper link between employment and vocational education we will never hit any participation targets." His hopes, and those of other reformers, are now pinned on Mike Tomlinson's recommendations for the 14-19 curriculum. Here, finally, they see a chance to break with the A-level "gold standard" and make a serious attempt to engage the disaffected.

But it is worth noting that Tomlinson's inquiry was born not of concern about disadvantaged drop-outs but in answer to middle-class outrage at the 2002 A-level marking fiasco. This is symptomatic of a political reality which puts the "lost generation" near the bottom of governments' to-do list.

It is a problem which could yet sabotage Tomlinson's proposed reforms. Some in Whitehall are now questioning whether persuading more 16 to 18-year-olds to stay on is a realistic or even desirable goal.

They suggest that the UK labour market has more in common with that of the United States than that of Germany or Scandinavia where employers value qualifications highly and young people are less likely to take unskilled jobs such as supermarket shelf-stacking.

Proponents of this argument say the UK should be aiming to increase the qualification level of young people by the age of 25. The problem with this approach is that while some people return to education after a period of work or unemployment, others, particularly the most at risk of dropping out, can quickly lose confidence and settle for a life on the dole or in dead-end jobs.

But curriculum reformers fear that arguments for accepting low participation will become increasingly attractive if ministers come under fire as they try to introduce Tomlinson's diploma. They worry that traditionalists, cheered on by sections of the press, will fight to keep GCSEs and A-levels and that if ministers get bogged down in the difficult detail of reform they may cave in.

Already, key government figures appear wary of big-bang curriculum reform.

Privately, they talk about finding a wording for the next manifesto that does not rule out Tomlinson's proposals but avoids a commitment.

"The onus is on people like myself, industry and the teacher unions to make the case for change," says Graham Lane. "Otherwise there is a danger that critics like the Daily Mail will force ministers to retreat. We cannot afford to let that happen."

As Nick Pearce, director of the Institute for Public Policy Research and a former government advisor puts it: "Have we now reached a stage at which we can lay to rest the argument that only A-levels guarantee high standards? Can have a system that is both excellent and inclusive? Tomlinson says we can, and it is high time we agreed."

If ministers ditch or water down Tomlinson's proposals, it will be a clear sign that they no longer believe they can make a difference to disaffected teenagers.

Speaking at the 1996 launch of Target 2000, Mr Blair summed up the situation as it still exists today. He said: "Britain will only regain its standing in the world if we harness the talents of our young people. There is a lost generation who have been hurt by the Tories and who are hurting still." Exactly.

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