Early school-leavers need the motivation to stay on course

"Never underestimate the power of an announcement," Mrs Thatcher is reputed to have told her Education Secretary Kenneth Baker, urging him to declare a national curriculum before it had been finally worked out. It's how we work in education - getting on with the day job while a volley of announcements explodes overhead.

We have heard more than our fair share of announcements in the past week.

"We've got to keep young people in education after 16, whether it's part-time or whether it's full-time, whether it's training in work, or in college, or staying on at school," said the premier-in-waiting Gordon Brown.

It came as several other statements rolled off the conveyor belt at the Department for Education and Skills: pronouncements about performance tables; the scrapping of online tests for 14-year-olds; plans to pilot tests that young people take when they are ready, and not on a set day of the year.

Mr Brown's statement about the school leaving age has met with a surprising degree of support, possibly as a result of our national inferiority complex at being ranked 27th out of 30 in international league tables of staying-on rates. "I'm a pupil - get me out of here," could be the motto of too many British teenagers: 11 per cent of them want to abandon learning at the first opportunity. In doing so, they form an unhappy club with their very own jargon, courtesy of the Learning and Skills Council. They are the Neet elite (not in employment, education or training).

Those of us who have to write endless bids to make it through the LSC's "learning gateways" - the passport to being able to offer specialist diplomas and young apprenticeships - will welcome anything that eases this bureaucratic hoop-jumping.

We must banish the ghost of Rosla, the raising of the school leaving age in 1972, and hope there really are courses that will motivate those who are sick of compulsory education. More of the same certainly won't do the trick. Otherwise, we risk further alienating some young people via convoluted, over-academic courses.

When Labour came to power in 1997, we complained about the micro-control of education - through national strategies or blunt targets. But we have since learnt that you can't force someone to learn. You can only create the conditions in which motivation and ambition drive people to learn. They have to see what's in it for them.

That's what is so refreshing about the recent focus on assessment for learning and the move away from heavy-handed testing. It feels like a genuine bid to personalisethe curriculum and create something more like the driving test: you learn to drive, practise, and you take the test, rather than wait with thousands of others for a hot summer's day to be tested simultaneously.

Then we had the leaving age announcement, harking back to management from the centre, and perhaps a glimpse of the kind of leader Gordon Brown will be. Michael Barber, the architect of New Labour's education policy of the past 10 years, recalls in his book The Learning Game a political meeting at which Tony Benn was the speaker: "In the front row, watching him, mesmerised, was an elderly pensioner. During one of his cascading passages about education, Mr Benn urged that 'the leaving age should be raised toI'

He paused, and looked warmly at his new pensioner friend, and then continued: 'I be raised to 85'."

Lifelong learning remains one of the Government's worthiest aims. One day, we will look back and think how crude and simplistic was the idea that learning ended at 18, 21 or 60, rather than being what human beings do endlessly. In the short term, if we're going to overturn the Neet group's contempt for education, then we need to ensure that the right courses are out there for them, and that learning is something personal and relevant that they want to embrace. That is something we clearly haven't achieved in their 11 preceding years of compulsory schooling.

Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI school in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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