Staying power: the battle to raise the participation age

11th February 2011 at 00:00
The Conservatives' plans to lift the school leaving age lack the carrot and stick approach of their Labour predecessors. Are their ambitions doomed to failure, asks Joseph Lee

During Parliamentary education questions just before Christmas, the Conservatives debuted one of their defences for the abolition of the education maintenance allowance (EMA) - that increasing the school leaving age to 18 would remove the need to incentivise over-16s to stay on.

Education secretary Michael Gove welcomed the "impeccable point". "We are committed to raising the participation age, and we have funded the raising of the participation age," he said.

Since then the Conservatives have driven the point home by quoting former Labour ministers, saying the EMA would need "restructuring" after the participation age was raised.

But Labour's plans for full participation in education or training up to 18 were very different, with the former government leaving itself the option to penalise those who refused to attend, just like compulsory schooling for under-16s. Mr Gove has ruled out enforcement, which raises this question: with no carrot and no stick, is raising the leaving age destined to fail?

The Young People's Learning Agency (YPLA) insists it can succeed, although there is a noticeable softening of its language on the matter. The agency concedes that not only is there no penalty for young people who do not attend, there will be no penalty for the agency if it does not meet the target (one consequence of the Coalition's rolling back of Labour's target culture is that there are no consequences for missing policy goals).

So while the YPLA wants us to know that it is not wavering in its efforts to achieve full participation, it is clear from the language used in response to an invitation to predict whether full participation is likely ("our goal", "work towards that") that the outcome remains uncertain.

YPLA chairman Les Walton says: "I am sure I can say on behalf of everyone on the board, from employers to students to people who work in colleges and schools, that it is our goal to achieve 100 per cent participation. We are not going to step back from that.

"We have an absolute moral purpose to achieve this: it's not just a challenge, it's an absolute requirement that we work towards that."

Mr Walton, a former headteacher and college principal, says he dislikes using the term Neet (not in employment, education or training) to describe the target group because it conceals the complex and varied reasons why teenagers drop. "They are not a homogenous statistical bloc. We have to try to understand the whole group and ensure that the programmes are absolutely focused on their needs. We must not assume they don't want to learn."

Government research in 2009 identified six groups who were out of education and training: unemployed and open to learning; undecided; with a negative view of learning; in jobs without training and lacking skills; content with their work; or in work as a stop-gap after making an educational choice that did not work out.

The Government hoped to use accredited employer training for those happiest in jobs, foundation learning for those with the lowest skills levels, apprenticeships for many others and diplomas for those most positive about learning.

Mr Walton says that schools and colleges also need to identify specific barriers keeping teenagers out of education, and to step in to remove reasons for them to drop out.

He recalls one former student of his, a young carer who was often absent from school. It turned out that she had to drop off her younger brother at primary school, where they would not admit students before 8.45am. That left her with no time to reach her secondary school by 9am - meaning she would get a detention that would stop her from collecting her brother at home time. So she stayed away. Mr Walton says schools and colleges also need to ensure they have the right curriculum to appeal to disengaged students, which is likely to mean more hands-on work.

He says that in the 1970s, when the leaving age was raised to 16, he wrote the curriculum for his students overnight. "I think we are much better prepared now. The thinking about the curriculum has been tremendous," he adds.

West Nottinghamshire College is running a programme dedicated to helping students back into education at its Ashfield campus. It offers a hands-on curriculum in subjects ranging from construction and motor vehicle engineering to business administration and hair and beauty, but it also has a dedicated environment on a more intimate scale for those who might be put off by the main college campus.

College principal Asha Khemka says: "It's worth our while to spend our energy and resources getting them back into education. I see them when they start, in the middle and when they are about to finish, and the growth in their confidence, the skills they acquire and the way they become focused is so rewarding."

The programme has shown signs of success, with 90 per cent of students continuing their studies after their first year. But Ms Khemka says the intensive support is expensive and needs to be subsidised by other courses. And she fears for the effect of the withdrawal of EMA, which will hit almost all the Ashfield students. Her educational charity, the Inspire and Achieve Foundation, is trying to raise sponsorship money from employers to maintain the pound;30-a-week payments.

The other element of the YPLA's plan for raising participation is improving advice and guidance to ensure students find the right course for them. But this is also at risk, with job losses at the Connexions advice centres of up to 50 per cent in some local authorities as their funding cuts take hold.

A series of Parliamentary responses to questions from shadow FE minister Gordon Marsden also reveals how much of the Government's new all-ages advice service is still unclear, even though it is due to take over from Connexions in September. Its responsibilities and funding are still being worked out, FE minister John Hayes said.

Mr Marsden said that with cuts to Connexions and a replacement that was not yet ready to take over, there was a risk that a cohort of students would miss out on effective guidance, damaging prospects for raising participation. "The people who should be making it happen just won't be there any more," he said.

A further gap which has opened up from the decision not to enforce the raising of the participation age is for students in jobs without training - 52 per cent of teenagers not in education or training. With no penalties for employers who do not train, it will be difficult to ensure the teenagers are pursuing accredited learning, or any learning at all.

Ultimately, raising the leaving age without enforcement may prove to be indistinguishable from not raising it at all, with any efforts to increase participation relying on attracting students to education and training, rather than pushing them.

The track record on increasing participation is good, with a 7 per cent increase from 2003 to the end of last year. The reason Neets remain a problem is largely due to a more rapid collapse of employment opportunities for young people, wiping out the educational gains.

The former Labour government's compulsory system all but guaranteed a statistical success, but it also risked creating perverse incentives for providers to warehouse disengaged teenagers in low-quality provision. Raising the participation age voluntarily may prove to be a big long-term test for the Coalition's target-free culture.

International evidence from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development suggests that volunteerism may be more effective than compulsion. The only countries which manage to keep 90 per cent of teenagers in education up to 18 are those which do not make it compulsory beyond 16. These are not just the perennial teacher's pets of Sweden, Finland and Norway, but also Poland and Ireland.

None of the countries with an official leaving age of 18 manages this. In Chile many leave at 15. Others, such as the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium, have significant numbers of dropouts at 17.

One possibility is that without compulsion, schools and colleges have to work harder on their curriculum, advice and guidance to make education an attractive proposition. So even if the Government fails to get 100 per cent of teenagers to stay, there is still an opportunity to reverse the axiom of the former skills secretary John Denham, by missing the target but getting the point.


1870: Elementary Education Act introduces first compulsory schooling for five to 10-year-olds, with some exceptions for agricultural workers.

1880: New Elementary Education Act empowers attendance officers to enforce school for five to 10-year-olds. Employers penalised for hiring under-13s who have not reached required educational standard.

1891: Free Education Act provides state support for school fees of up to 10 shillings a week.

1893: School leaving age rises to 11. Provision is made for special schools for deaf and blind children, whose attendance is also made compulsory.

1899: School leaving age rises to 12.

1918: Fisher Act makes full-time education compulsory to 14 and begins planning for provision up to 18, although cost of First World War delays plans for compulsory part-time education up to 18.

1944: A new Education Act raised the leaving age to 15 and installed the modern system of primary and secondary education.

1964: Plans to raise school leaving age to 16 are announced, but not enforced.

1972: School leaving age rises to 16.

2008: Education and Skills Act requires 17-year-olds to stay in education or work-based training by 2013 and 18-year-olds by 2015.

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