Editorial - All this change, but will any of it actually work?

Welcome back. Did you enjoy the long summer break? Are you ready for the myriad changes coming your way?

Let's hope so, because the pace of reform in England is not going to let up. There was no gentle start to the new term; instead, it began with a firm reminder from the government that the participation age has now risen to 17, and an announcement that any student failing to gain a C-grade English or mathematics GCSE by the age of 16 will have to keep on trying for another year.

The irony of this did not go unnoticed: here was an education secretary who had previously positioned himself as the enemy of resits stating that teenagers will have to take the same exams over and over again until they pass.

Previous changes to the school leaving age have not gone smoothly. Havoc was created in schools in 1972, and older teachers still recall the problems of the "ROSLA" (raising of the school leaving age) year, when unwilling teenagers were forced to stay on in the classroom.

Some arguments from that time have been echoed this week. But the tone of the present debate is entirely different because we have moved on as a society. Nowadays we are horrified by the idea of Neets (young people not in education, employment or training) and accept the need for them to keep learning. How can we not? Forget talk of the knowledge economy and our technological futures; surely any advanced nation should be able to ensure that all its young people who are capable gain a decent exam pass in mathematics and their country's native language?

But even with the most laudable ideas, things can go quickly awry when it comes to making them work on the ground. As we report on page 12, teachers and lecturers have serious concerns about the plans and not because they have low expectations of students - even though getting the less able over the grade boundary if they have failed to do so after 11 years of formal education will be a major challenge.

Whereas in 1972 it was up to schools to make the extra room, now the brunt of the work will fall on colleges, which are understandably worried about a significant lack of staff and funding. Schools, meanwhile, seem unsure of their responsibilities. And not all councils have set up the systems needed to check that everything is on track, nor will there be fines or other sanctions when it comes to the raised participation age, which makes one wonder what difference it will make.

And for all the talk of GCSEs, students needn't actually retake the exam at the end of their extra year of study, even if they do hang around. They can take any number of different courses, prompting a former government adviser to lament the possibility of young people wasting their time on "crappy equivalents".

There is also a wider question about the purpose of GCSEs. Are they meant to be increasingly academic and rigorous, as ministers suggest when they compare their planned new tests with O levels, or are they basic-skills exams necessary to secure meaningful employment?

It will be a huge step if we can ensure that all young people finish their education with the mathematics and English skills they need. But the government can get credit for this only if it provides the funding and support required to make the plan work.david.marley@tes.co.uk.

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