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Flaws of faith in compulsion

Raising the school leaving age to 18 could backfire on the Government

GOVERNMENT PLANS to raise the leaving age to 18 have a paradox at their heart. It is widely accepted that compelling people to stay on will only work if other actions substantially increase the numbers volunteering to do so.

If they do, the leaving age becomes a symbol of success. But if there is no voluntary increase in participation, compulsion becomes fraught with difficulty. In that event, it could become a symbol of failure.

The key questions, therefore, are not about the leaving age legislation itself but about how far the reforms preceding it can take us. The CfBT Education Trust, with commendable foresight, commissioned research in advance of the green paper on what was needed successfully to implement an increased leaving age. The research identified a number of serious risks.

The Government seems to be placing a great deal of faith in the ability of the new specialised diplomas to attract and engage disaffected learners, but success is unlikely.

There has been an effort to gain parity of esteem with academic qualifications, but the diplomas seem to lack that solid core of practical skills that attracts and motivates the disengaged. Rather than building on the success of colleges with the increased flexibility programme, they seem destined to follow in the path of GNVQs and AVCEs an interesting addition to the educational offer but hardly a radical transformation.

Nor does international experience offer encouragement. Several US states have raised the leaving age with minimal impact on participation. In Canada, there are few results to show, even in New Brunswick the frontrunner in this reform. The reason is that in North America they have shied away from regulations of the labour market that might enforce attendance, and without enforcement the policy won't work.

The principal cause for concern, however, is that for many young people enforced participation doesn't make sense. What about someone with caring responsibilities? Would they be forced to attend college full time? What, for example, would a young person who achieved a level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) qualification at 1712 do for the remaining six months? There is no chance of them getting a level 3 (A-level) when even high-flyers take two years.

What would happen to someone who completed a level 2 apprenticeship by age 17 in a firm that had no level 3 jobs for them? Would they be sacked? What about someone combining full-time work with day release who loses a job? For how long would they be allowed to seek alternative work before being drafted back into full-time education?

The Government too readily equates jobs without training with jobs without learning. In fact, many young people in low-level jobs are learning the very things that employers value: turning up on time, working with others, dealing with customers. Just because it is not an accredited programme doesn't mean it is not the sort of learning experience that some people need.

Alan Johnson, in his ministerial statement on the proposals, said they would "galvanise the entire education system" to improve performance. This seems unlikely. League tables are a powerful disincentive for any provider thinking of working with disadvantaged learners, let alone those who simply don't want to be there.

As we have seen with previous initiatives, a range of low-status "providers of last resort" will probably emerge to tackle the thankless job of delivering inflexible offerings to reluctant conscripts.

So what is the alternative? The short answer is, don't do it. We could however seek to "galvanise" the Government by setting a 100 per cent participation target for 2015 without allowing them the cop-out of compulsion. They would have to work hard to encourage programmes people really wanted to undertake; they would have to listen to learners. In the process they might find out what a "demand-led system" really means.

Mick Fletcher is a researcher and member of the Policy Consortium consultants on post-16 education and training

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