'Sixth-formers are treated like second-class citizens'

Whether they're in school, college, work or unemployed, 16- and 17-year-olds get a raw deal, writes Stephen Exley

'Sixth-formers are treated like second-class citizens'

Casting off the shackles of school after completing your GCSEs should be an exhilarating, liberating moment. Whether you choose to study in a college or sixth form or move into an apprenticeship, this is the phase of education in which young people start to exercise choice, pursue their interests and ambitions and start to shape their careers.

So why are young people between the ages of 16 and 18 treated like second-class citizens?

The raising of the participation age was intended to improve help young people make the transition from the world of education into sustainable employment.

It meant that, from 2015, young people were legally required to remain in education, employment or training until their 18th birthday.

When the law was developed by the previous Labour government, a £50 fine was suggested to deter young people from flouting the law, with businesses also expected to face financial penalties if they failed to comply.

These measures were vetoed by the coalition government, with the Department for Education claiming at the time 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”.

As a result, the impact of the policy has been negligible: the requirement is completely unenforced.

This just part of a patchwork of policy failures that mean that too many young people end up falling through the cracks, as is succinctly highlighted in a report by the Learning and Work Institute’s Youth Commission, published today.


Read more: Part-time jobs for sixth-form students down by half

Background: 'Work experience: is it really worthwhile?'

More news: 'Make work experience compulsory again,' say most business leaders


Local authorities have a duty to track 16- and 17-year-olds, and to re-engage those who have dropped out of education or training.

But they get virtually nothing in the way of funding to help them do this. Since 2016, even this token requirement has stopped being applicable for 18-year-olds, who are all too often left to fend for themselves on the fringes of both the education system and the jobs market.

Inequality runs deep

As a result, the status of 2.3 per cent of 16- and 17-year-olds is recorded as unknown by their local authority (with a peak of 7.6 per cent in the London borough of Haringey). In other words, the status of around half of 16- and 17-year-old Neets is a mystery.

Another perverse consequence of the system is that 16- and 17-year-olds are not entitled to claim benefits or access support from Jobcentre Plus.

But the problems don’t start once our young people leave the education system. Yes, the government may be very pleased with itself at having announced the raising of the rate of 16-19 funding – but it’s long, long overdue, being the first increase since 2013.

And we are still left with a striking gap in per-student funding between secondary and sixth-form spending, which stood at 9 per cent in 2017-18 according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies – despite that fact that sixth-form education is, if anything, even more expensive to provide.

Young people deserve better

Even more indefensible is that the funding drops off again once students hit age 18: the base rate drops by 17.5 per cent, from £4,000 to £3,300. This cut was implanted in 2014 to trim money from the Department for Education’s budget, with then education secretary Michael Gove saying the “painful” decision had been “forced on us” by the Treasury. There was no educational justification for it, as the Augar review pointed out, and yet this unfairness still persists today.

Whether they are in full-time education or not, 16- to 18-year-olds get a raw deal. Little wonder that one in 10 young people aged 16-24 has never had a job (excluding holiday or casual work) – a figure that has remained unchanged for a decade.

The next government – no matter the result of next month’s general election – owes them a better deal.

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