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Raising the participation age 'at risk of failing', report claims

The raising of the participation age is “at risk of failing” without a radical overhaul of post-16 funding and provision, according to a new report.

While GCSE results day traditionally marked the stage at which students could bid farewell to classes, teachers and exams for good, last year saw the participation age raised to 17.

This means young people must remain in some form of education or training until the end of the academic year in which they turn 17, effectively forcing them to stay in some form of school, college or work-based education or training programme for an additional 12 months.

In 2015, the participation age will be raised once more, obliging teenagers to stay in education until their 18th birthday.

But a report published today by Beth Foley, a researcher at Lancaster University’s Work Foundation, argues that without extra investment in careers advice and vocational qualifications, the “watered down” policies in place are doomed to failure.

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

But these measures were vetoed by the current government, with the Department for Education claiming that the fines “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 suggested the government had inherited a reform it had little enthusiasm for but did not want to be seen to abolish, and the new report has warned that significant changes are needed if it is to have anything more than a “minimal impact”.

“Without legal enforcement, much of the success of the increase in participation age to 18 depends upon the ‘carrots’ on offer,” Ms Foley said. “The government must provide the necessary support to ensure careers advice and financial assistance reaches the most disaffected and disadvantaged young people. Any less would represent a missed opportunity at a time when youth unemployment remains a serious problem.”

According to the latest figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 78 per cent of 15 to 19-year-olds in the UK are participating in education or training, significantly lower than other European nations such as Spain (86 per cent), France (84 per cent) and Italy (81 per cent).

The report argues that, without financial penalties, the higher participation age has become “largely voluntary”, with the removal of the Educational Maintenance Allowance and cuts to local authority budgets making it more difficult for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to remain in education. Further financial support to help students with their transport costs should be made available, it argues.

The quality of many post-16 vocational qualifications, it adds, is “questionable”, adding that the “significant” gap between pre- and post-16 spending per head poses further problems for providers. The report also calls for more high-quality, face-to-face careers guidance and better tracking and monitoring of 17-year-olds to ensure they comply with the legislation.

Related stories:

Ofqual chief warns of exam results rollercoaster - August 2014

Raising the participation age: a "massive missed opportunity"? - August 2013

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