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Should we let them quit at 14?

THE school-leaving age should be lowered to 14 and schools that fail to hit exam targets should be shut down, according to the former special adviser to David Blunkett.

Conor Ryan, who worked closely with Mr Blunkett when he was Education Secretary, now says Labour's schools reforms have not been radical enough.

His pamphlet, Freedom from Failure , published this week by the Centre for Policy Studies, claims teacher quality remains a problem. He says that it has become taboo to criticise bad staff and that it is too hard to sack them. He wants more teachers trained in schools rather than in teacher-training colleges.

He says strong schools should work with weak ones, bypassing the local authority and using direct grants from Government. And it should be made easier for private providers to take over bad schools. This could mean axing regulations protecting public-sector workers whose organisations are taken over.

His support for apprenticeships at 14 was echoed by Chris Woodhead this week at the Association of Colleges conference. The former chief inspector, now a professor at Buckingham University, said the lowest-achieving 14-year-olds should be allowed to leave school and learn a trade. "Thirty per cent of adults are over-educated and the biggest shortages are in craft and skills trades," he said.

Mr Ryan, now a freelance writer, said the abolition of national tests and league tables would return schools "to the Dark Ages".

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said:

"Bearing in mind how close Conor Ryan was to David Blunkett, this articulation of the gospel according to Chris Woodhead casts an interesting light on the Blunkett years."

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