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Raising the participation age: a "massive missed opportunity"?

GCSE results day is a rite of passage and, for many students, the most stressful day in their school life. But for those who flunked their exams, there used to be some kind of consolation: if they'd had enough of exams, they could leave school and tests behind them.

But from this summer onwards, the participation age is being raised, meaning students are legally obliged to stay in some form of education or training until the end of the academic year in which they turn 17. In practice, this means one more year of study. In 2015, the participation age will go up again to 18.

While the term “school leaving age” is commonly used, students’ options are by no means limited to taking A-levels in their local sixth form. They can opt to take vocational qualifications in a college, or embark on work-based training schemes, such as apprenticeships.

They even have the option of working or volunteering, provided this is combined with a programme of study leading to a qualification.

So what happens if students don’t do any of the above? Well, nothing.

When the law was developed by the previous Labour government, a £50 fine was floated to help deter young people from flouting the law. Businesses, too, were expected to face fines for employing young people and not providing then with training.

But these measures have been vetoed by the coalition. The fines, the Department for Education argued, “might act as a perverse incentive, discouraging businesses from hiring 16- to 17-year-olds and so reducing the number of opportunities available for young people”.

The policy’s critics suggest the government has inherited a reform it has little enthusiasm for but doesn’t want to be seen to abolish, and is instead opting to let it limp into existence without taking the strong measures needed to ensure its success.

John Healey, formerly the financial secretary to the Treasury in the last Labour government, described raising the participation age as a “massive missed opportunity”, and said ministers had “washed their hands” of it.

The government, however, insists fines will be kept under review “with the option to introduce the employers’ duties and enforcement in future, if these were needed”.

Few observers will be holding their breath.

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