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End of the line for rite of passage

Ed Balls looks to earn his place in the history books as the secretary of state who raised the school leaving age from 16 to 18.

But what will be the legacy for colleges?

The proportion of 16-year-olds who stay on in education has been steadily growing in this country as colleges have used increasing inventiveness and determination to appeal to teenagers.

It is bewildering, therefore, that just when FE is succeeding in increasing staying-on rates, the Government feels the need to step in and effectively subsume colleges into the compulsory education sector.

There will be few dissenting voices from the FE world as compulsion draws closer. After all, public-funded organisations do not tend to protest against increased Government funding - which will surely follow.

The voices that will not be heard will be those of lecturers and their students.

Many lecturers work in FE specifically because they prefer teaching post- compulsory students, who are there by choice. It means they spend more time teaching and less time on crowd control. For them, the absence of unwilling students is one of the few compensations for their poor salaries compared with school teachers.

For students, the notion of going to college has a special magic about it precisely because it is separate from the compulsory education world and therefore a step into adulthood. With teenagers being told what is good for them and forced to remain in the fold until 18, that step into adulthood will be delayed by two years.

This may indeed create a "culture change" in colleges - as Mr Balls predicts - but it may not be the one that he intended.

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