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The miracle of elastic childhood

I've just received a note from my mole at the heart of the national administrative machine: "There's a new buzz phrase in Whitehall. We now speak of 'perverse incentives'. This means that we policy wonks beat our brains out thinking up smart ideas to make the world a better place and what do you people in education do? You find a way of making an extra few bob out of it and defeat the whole object of the exercise.

"For example, back in 1993 we said you had to recruit more students.

"We invented a way of making student numbers disappear into units, added a little zest by cutting your funding unless you produced more and more of these units every year, and sat back to watch our garden grow. You halved every course and made every student take two half-length units where only one did the job before. Great stuff. Well done, except for two things.

"You did what we told you to do instead of what we hoped you might do, and attracted the attention of the boys in blue. And to cap it all, the Learning and Skills Development Agency now comes up with Prospects for growth in further education and tells us that 16-plus participation in education at school and college grew steadily all the way from 1950 to 1993 but since 1994 it 'has not changed significantly'. In fact, when our idea was really getting up steam in the mid-1990s, participation fell!

"Now I call that ingratitude. I give you incentives, and you give me perversity.

"I've got another idea simmering which I don't want you lot out there to spoil. My idea is that everyone should stay on in full-time education until they are at least 18.

"My reasoning behind this is that many of the countries where I like to take my holidays keep more of their kids in school after 16 than we do. You will tell me that in some of them children don't even start school until they are seven. I got my idea from Germany and Japan because they not only keep children studying full-time but were also very successful. They still make jolly good cars, but you'll say that their economies no longer look quite as bright and shiny as once they did. Never mind, this staying on full-time idea is a winner.

"You might also try to persuade me by arguing, alongside LSDA, that higher staying-on rates before 1993 were driven by a lack of jobs for youngsters in the worst recession most of us can remember. Given half a chance, you'll say, a lot of kids vote with their feet and start truanting as soon as puberty has its wicked way with them, and would have to be nailed down to keep them in a classroom after 16. You will even tell me, in a gush of historicism, that one of the all-time greats of science, Dalton, became a teacher at 12 and was running a boarding school with his brother at 15.

Nelson went to sea at 12, took part in an expedition to the North Pole at 15 and was a ship's captain in the West Indies at 21. Brunel, greatest of engineers, was apprenticed to Breguet, greatest of clockmakers, in Paris at 15 and at 19 was assistant to his father, boring the first, desperately hazardous, underwater tunnel in the world, at Rotherhithe.

"You might even have the gall to argue that all that excellent on-the-job learning and early professional maturity only came to a stop when Victorian sentimentality about childhood was allowed to take hold. And that happened after the first flush of the Industrial Revolution had passed, the adult population had grown and mechanisation and imperialism reduced the need for productive young English hands. I'll bet you'll even quote Oscar Wilde at me when he lampooned the author of all that mawkishness, Dickens: 'A man must have a heart of stone to read of the Death of Little Nell without laughing out loud.'

"Well I like your style. You're persistent. You could even put the last nail in my idea's coffin and say that post-industrial Britain is so much in need of productive people that you have to stay in your job until you're 70. You could say that we need to encourage immigration to support our expanding economy and compensate for our disinclination to breed. You could say that keeping the young away from doing what they want to do, work, until they are in their 20s makes no sense when we so obviously need their energy and skill.

"But I have an answer for you. I've just slipped into an otherwise admirable green paper on better protection for vulnerable children, called Every Child Matters, a definition of childhood which takes it up to the age of 19. Even people who do get out to work and have a couple of children, are children! Every which way, I can't be wrong this time."

Sometimes I wonder about him.

David Sherlock is chief inspector of adult learning

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