Between 1987 and 1996 the percentage of 18-year-olds with no academic qualifications fell from 13 per cent in 1987 to only 5 per cent in 1996. Similarly, the percentage gaining two or more AAS levels has more than doubled from 14 per cent to 30 per cent of the cohort. These figures represent a significant achievement for both students, and staff in the schools and colleges responsible for their education.
However, the gateway at 16 still seems as important as ever. Helping adolescents, and their families, overcome this hurdle would seem to be one of the major tasks for our education service. Happily, youngsters seem to be increasingly aware, both that qualifications are important, and also that learning isn't over once school ends.
In 1987 only 29 per cent of 18-year-olds were studying for further qualifications. By 1996 this had risen to 52 per cent. The interesting fact was that although the percentage in higher education had risen from 12 per cent to 20 per cent of the cohort, those seeking a vocational qualification, but not in higher education, had risen even further from 12 per cent to 23 per cent.
These percentages were, of course, for the cohort that was 18 before the advent of tuition fees and the growing levels of student debt. How far these changes will affect decisions will start to be revealed in the next study.
The provisions of the 1998 Education Act on training for those over 16 will help ensure more training for those in work if employers are prepared to participate. Unfortunately, it will still be too easy for some students to slip through the net. Maybe it is time to review the break at 16.
Students could remain on the roll of an education institution until 18 even if not in full-time education or training. At least then we could keep in touch with everyone without the need to raise the leaving age to 18. It could also help raise achievement even further.
John Howson is a fellow of Oxford Brookes University and runs an education research company, E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org