Leading Article

13th July 2007 at 01:00

The announcement this week by Ed Balls, the Children, Schools and Families Secretary, that he will be raising the education leaving age to 18 should send a shudder through the spine of those who have worked so hard to make colleges a success.

Unlike some other parts of the public sector, colleges have to attract customers to stay in business which is a key reason for the steadily improving quality of FE.

The essential ingredient which sells further education to 16-year-olds is the word "college". It has a special meaning which is sometimes lost on those who think of FE only in terms of policy particularly the skills agenda.

College is indeed special. But it is special because it is not school, because it is voluntary and because it is an adult environment.

College is what makes the difference between being a "pupil" and being a "student".

This distinctive quality of colleges their "unique selling point" is what makes them work for thousands of teenagers previously turned off by school as well as high achievers keen to be regarded as students. For the majority of school-leavers, who will not be going to university, college is their only opportunity to make the transition into adulthood while still under the eye of the education system.

This experience which could so easily be taken for granted by an Oxford educated minister should not be denied others.

An institution which "attracts" its students on the basis of compulsion, enforced by legislation, is not a "college" in any meaningful sense. An important gateway to adulthood will have been closed.

Instead of making 16-18 education compulsory (and therefore less attractive to the participant), the Government should extend school-leavers the right to the equivalent of two years' free education to be used when they are ready for it even if this is later in life.

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