The goal of ensuring that every 17-year-old remains in education and training has been thrown into doubt by new census figures that reveal there are tens of thousands more teenagers in England than previously thought.
Revised participation figures, adjusted in line with the 2011 census and published by the Department for Education last week, show that more than 40,000 additional 16- and 17-year-olds are not in education and training.
This means that come September the government faces an even larger task than expected to find education and training places for every young person up to the age of 17. Instead of just under 80,000 16- and 17-year-olds, there are more than 120,000 without education or training places, 9.3 per cent of the total.
Julian Gravatt, assistant chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said that the government had thought its ambitions for raising the participation age would be fulfilled easily, as participation was on an upward trend and demographics suggested that this age group was getting smaller. The census has overturned that expectation.
"The prevailing assumption was that raising the participation age would be achieved without much difficulty in 2013," Mr Gravatt said. "I wouldn't want to call it complacency but there was an assumption that the numbers would do it for them. There wasn't a great deal of government action."
In 2010, the coalition announced its support for raising the participation age, although it removed any penalties on parents who do not ensure young people are in education or training and employers who do not offer training. It paid for extra places by reducing per-student funding.
Mr Gravatt said there are probably sufficient places in the system to accommodate the larger number of teenagers revealed by the census, but warned that they are not necessarily where students want to go, given that much of the growth in the past decade has been in creating new school sixth forms.
The abolition of the education maintenance allowance (EMA) and the problems in expanding apprenticeships for students aged under 18 have made it more difficult to ensure that education and training places are available for the extra teenagers, Mr Gravatt added. "It will be a real challenge," he said.
Toni Pearce, vice-president for FE of the National Union of Students, said: "Once again the DfE has been caught making policy without fully understanding the consequences. It rushed ahead before it knew the number of students involved and has ignored the financial difficulties that many of those students will face."
Colleges and training providers say that the proposed traineeship scheme, intended as a stepping stone into apprenticeships for students who do not yet meet employers' requirements, will be vital in providing education and training places for this group of teenagers.
"This is why it's so important that traineeships get off the ground," said a spokesman for the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP), whose members train the majority of apprentices. "Employers are raising the bar in terms of the prior qualifications that they want apprentices to have. There aren't enough young people ready to step up to apprenticeships as soon as they leave school.
"There are young people who don't want to go back to the classroom, who are looking for a work-based option, and apprenticeships are closed off to them because they don't have the qualifications."
Skills minister Matthew Hancock announced the development of the traineeships programme earlier this year, proposing that they would last about six months and offer English and maths alongside employability skills training, work experience and optional vocational learning.
Training providers say that despite not lasting a full year, the qualifications could help with raising the participation age if they work as a pathway to a longer-lasting apprenticeship. But they acknowledge that it is not clear if employers will be prepared to take on more apprentices if a traineeship programme is introduced. "It all depends on the state of the economy. That's the big issue," the AELP spokesman said.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said: "The revised data means there is even further to go to reach full participation and makes it all the more important that the right support is in place to help young people. That is why we will fund a place in education or training for every 16- and 17-year-old who wants one."
The Department has run projects in 44 local authorities to support raising the participation age, focusing on issues ranging from pathways to apprenticeships to why students drop out of the education provision they choose at 16.
The DfE spokeswoman said that the Youth Contract is also addressing the problem of teenagers without a place in education or training, with pound;126 million available to support 70,000 young people back into education or into a job through training.
As well as developing traineeships, she said the DfE is providing pound;180 million of financial support for young people through the 16-19 bursary fund, although that represents only about a third of the money that used to be distributed as EMAs.
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