Higher leaving age is a flight from reality

If policy-makers are to be believed, the future is like an inflexible and demanding company director. And he (it's usually a he) is not amused. It seems schools are failing to prepare youth for what lies ahead. Pupils are under-skilled and immature, on the streets at 16 with nothing but the ability to annoy shopkeepers and frighten old ladies.

But here in Ontario, we've fixed it. It's simple, too: we keep children in school until the age of 18 - whether they like it or not. Now, England is about to follow suit.

Advocates of the policy rightly point out that dropping out of school makes young people more likely to engage in high-risk behaviours with serious consequences - from unwanted pregnancy to drug abuse and prison. Those who avoid such perils will earn significantly less throughout their careers than their more educated peers.

But there's a problem. Raising the leaving age to 18 gives pupils at risk a greater, rather than lesser, opportunity to drop out. Two years more, to be exact. Measures to prevent this - in Ontario, those who bail out can't get a driving licence - don't really apply to those from poor backgrounds, who usually can't afford driving lessons anyway.

When students are finally released into the job market, they will find that entry-level positions have not changed. And it seems unlikely that an uncompromising economy will reward them any more highly after another two years at school. Disillusioned 18-year-olds, full of the false hope that's been rammed down their throats by schools and politicians, will end up with poor pay, little security and no benefits.

Which brings me to the real reason for keeping children in school.

Historically, the raising of the age of compulsory schooling has had much to do with expediency. When there's no work out there, schools are a handy holding-pen for restless youth. Can't think what else to do with them? Send them off to double maths. For proof of this bums-on-seats mentality, take a popular Ontario college course. It's offered to school-leavers and it's called Police Foundations. There are few job opportunities in law enforcement, yet students who don't stand a chance of getting one are admitted willy-nilly. Many of them struggle to write a sentence or show up to class on time, never mind co-ordinate an accident scene or write a crime report. Many of them drop out.

Even those who finish the course are caught in a lie that the keep-'em-in-school legislation reinforces. Since they were very small, they have been told that they are all terrific, that education is a panacea, and that anybody can achieve anything: "You wanna be a cop? Then be a cop!"

Not likely - especially when even graduates struggle to make lives for themselves. Their degrees are worth less now because there are more degrees out there. Now, many jobs require masters degrees - not because the jobs call for them, but because they make a handy gate-keeping device for employers.

To make matters worse, it isn't just entry-level jobs that are short-term and precarious. Increasingly, graduates are working from contract to contract as employers cut costs. Housing prices are absurdly high, and many young people are saddled with student debt. Put simply, they cannot afford to become adults.

But perhaps that's the idea. The baby-boomers who currently run the world are getting ready for retirement, and keeping youth off the streets is a way to avoid dealing with their problems. Rather than facing the future, they are avoiding it as best they can. Extra school? Hey, why not? It's the laziest form of procrastination, and it's wasting students' lives.

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