STUDENTS who stay on in education after 16 could soon be rewarded with free driving lessons, cut-price coach or train tickets, or even a VIP visit to their favourite football club.
Malcolm Wicks, the lifelong learning minister, this week announced the Connexions Card - previously called the Youth Card - which he said will reward those who continue learning by "giving them something in return".
He said the scheme's discounts on transport, books and materials would break down some of the financial barriers to learning.
The "smart" card will track attendance at schools or colleges. This information will be used to trigger payment of education maintenance allowances - a weekly payment to those who stay on being piloted in several areas with low participation rates.
It will also hold CV information and act as an "e-purse" to pay for cafeteria meals or bus fares.
"The combination of financial support from the education maintenance allowance and the motivational incentives of the Connexions Card working together will be a powerful tool to increase learning and success among 16 to 19-year-olds," Mr Wicks said.
The Department for Education and Employment has issued a prospectus to attract commercial partners to help run the scheme.
Firms interested in participating include BT, the British School of Motoring, Boots, H Smith, McDonald's, National Express and the Association of Train Operating Companies.
Tthe card will offer associate National Union of Students membership and discounts similar to those available to university students.
Mr Wicks said that the card would only be embraced if it was attractive and "cool". Plans to include a photograph and date of birth, making it a de facto official proof-of-age card, could help increase its popularity.
Max Kay, head of the Nottingham Bluecoat school, said his 200 sixth-formers had displayed better attendance, motivation and attainment since starting to use a test smart card, which is linked to an educational maintenance allowance trial. Students can use the card to pay bus fares and collect points in city shops that can be spent at leisure facilities.
Four pilot projects will further test the idea from September.
The card, due for a national launch in September 2001, could reach up to 1.8 million 16 to 19-year-olds, Mr Wick said.
It is part of the cross-departmental Connexions strategy that aims to ensure every young person stays in learning post-16 and achieves a "worthwhile" qualification by 19.
The Connexions Card prospectus is available from Joanne Low on 0114 259 1121 (email@example.com) or at www.dfee.gov.ukyouthcard Connexions: www.connexions.gov.uk