Only half the population stays in education post-16 - three quarters if you include those in training. But this still leaves us trailing the industrialised world. Neil Merrick reports
Three years ago, less than half of the young people in Middlesbrough stayed in school or college after the age of 16. Since the introduction of education maintenance allowances (EMAs) in 1999, the percentage of those remaining has leapt from 48 to 64 per cent. At Middlesbrough College, which has a roll of 2,000 pupils, about a quarter receive an allowance of up to pound;40 a week, and 97 per cent of those pupils are now attending school.
"Many students indicated that they wouldn't otherwise be attending," says Karen Joyce, the college's director of marketing and customer services. The allowance is a significant sum in households where money is tight.
Middlesbrough is one of 15 areas where the scheme is going through trials in an effort to raise participation rates among 16 to 18-year-olds. A quarter of this age group continue to opt out of education and training during the two years after the statutory school-leaving age.
Students at Middlesbrough College receive the allowance if they sign an agreement pledging not to miss any lessons. If they are absent without authorisation, then the allowance is withdrawn.
Ms Joyce rejects the idea that students are being bribed to enroll. "There is a difference between an incentive for people to do education and a bribe," she says. "The students are staying the course and they are going to achieve."
The scheme has, however, led to resentment among those not entitled to the money because they live outside the two towns selected for the trial, Middlesbrough and Hartlepool. The college was forced to dip into its learner-support fund to help students from low-income families who were not eligible.
"It can be quite divisive," Ms Joyce says. "It's difficult when you have two students sitting next to each other and only one of them gets an EMA purely because of where they live." Students are eligible if their parents' income is less than pound;30,000 per year.
The overall success of the scheme is yet to be determined, as the Government has not said whether pilot will be extended beyond next year.
What it is clear, however, is that the culture of youngsters leaving education at age 16 must come to an end. About two-thirds of those not in education or training are in jobs in which they do not receive any training from their employers. Of even greater concern are the remaining 157,000 who were not in training, work or education in 1999.
But how many 16 to 18-year-olds can education and training providers realistically hope to reach? And is it better to aim for those in work or those who are doing nothing?
John Harwood, the chief executive of the Local Skills Council (LSC), is keen to look at both: "There are far too many people who don't see it as appropriate to learn - either for its own rewards or to acquire skills they can use at work. We will not tackle levels of educational attainment unless more young people stay on in school or college, or go into jobs that require them to have high-quality training."
In spite of Mr Harwood's enthusiasm for raising participation, the National Skills Council won't be imposing targets on providers when the national learning targets expire in 2002.
Instead, Mr Harwood is keen to see new targets emerging from practitioners on the ground, with LSCs likely to be the main forum for deciding what sort of goals providers should achieve.
"We want to build a bottom-up planning system which reflects people's determination and commitment at a local level," he says.
Widening participation has been high on the agenda in further education since the Kennedy report in 1997. Colleges now receive extra funding for attracting people who would not normally take part in learning. Much effort is being directed at reaching youngsters before they opt out.
City College in Manchester is one of many institutions to develop a strategy to stress to 14 to 19-year-olds the value of staying on.
Ian Millard, vice-principal of City College, stresses the importance of offering a wide vocational curriculum from age 14. In some cases the college directly supports programmes in local schools.
Targets, he believes, are helpful if there is a proper strategy behind them. "We have established support services, such as a mentoring scheme for youngsters who need help in seeing what they can achieve," says Mr Millard. "It is about having a structure to the curriculum that supports progression, so we can reach out to groups in the community who don't traditionally access further education."
Disaffected teenagers are one of the key priorities of the Connexions service. Anne Weinstock, its chief executive, agrees that a vocational curriculum is more likely to appeal to youngsters in the "bridging the gap" group - named after a 1999 report by the Government's social exclusion unit that led to the creation of the service.
Although it is important to reach disaffected pupils when they are still at school, Connexions also wants to improve the advice and support given to post-16 pupils in colleges. "We must understand why youngsters switch off learning and what triggers will switch them back on," says Ms Weinstock. "A lot of the 'bridging the gap' young people have multiple problems, which must be resolved before they can go into learning. It's a fallacy to think that the person who takes drugs on a Friday will start a modern apprenticeship on Monday."
It is not all doom and gloom, however. In 1999, the number of 16 to 18-year-olds not in education, training or employment fell by 28,000 to 157,000. Falling unemployment may have contributed to this, but efforts made by colleges and other agencies also played a part.
Sue Taylor from the Learning and Skills Development Agency is the author of Back on Track, a report on learning for disaffected young people. She says multi-agency links are vital for youngsters who are unlikely to opt for traditional classroom-based courses. "A lot of this work is taking place outside the mainstream in community-based schemes. It's not the same pattern everywhere. A lot of them are funded on a project basis."
A recent report for the Further Education Funding Council about matching employer needs to learners' aspirations called for new nationally funded programmes to help youngsters who fall out of the education and training system.
In the meantime, many colleges face the problem of recruiting people who have rejected learning because they believe they are better off going straight into work.
In Milton Keynes 67 per cent of 16-year-olds are in full-time education, compared with the national average of 71 per cent. Fourteen per cent are in full-time jobs, compared with nine per cent in England as a whole.
Sally Dicketts, principal of Milton Keynes College, believes many firms are not keen to release their employees to attend part-time courses, even when their workers have left school without skills and qualifications. "It's about selling the benefits of literacy and numeracy to the employer, but they are quite sceptical," she says. "They are afraid that if their staff gain qualifications, they will become more employable and leave for a better job."
Not all employers are so short-sighted. The college runs a basic literacy scheme for British Telecom employees. In other cases, it has to find ways of reaching individual workers.
For instance, it has an IT outreach centre where learners book to study online. "It's about being flexible about when people learn," says Ms Dicketts.
Mary Conneely, the LSC executive director, is also keen to examine the role of private trainers and increase overall collaboration. "We have got to work with the whole range of providers to create far more imaginative ways of engaging with learning," she says.
If necessary, the LSC will use funding to cut out wasteful competition and institutions will no longer be allowed to "cream-off" the most able students.
"Funding can drive behaviour," she says. "Part of what we are about is being a strategic planning authority. Some people already see that this is the way to strengthen their ability to deliver curriculum 2000."