Talent needs new paths to tread

24th October 2008 at 01:00
Dropout rates will not be solved by raising the school-leaving age - we need a more creative curriculum

When the Government introduced plans to change the law, raising the age of compulsory participation in formal education or training to 18, it understandably made headlines around the country.

But is raising the leaving age a "good thing" in and of itself?

Of course, everyone should have access to some form of formal learning up to 18. Indeed, as the pace of change accelerates, learning must increasingly be for life. But what I simply do not believe is that the reasons young people choose to leave learning at 16 are suddenly going to evaporate because a two-year extension is introduced. If, by the age of 16, young people have not been inspired and excited to learn, and to go on learning, then forcing them to do so for a further period is not going to change matters.

The challenge - and it is where successive governments have so far failed - is in making learning interesting and relevant enough, so that there is no need to resort to compulsion. At Edge - the independent education foundation that I run - we believe that there are many paths to success. However, while career paths that follow the traditional academic route of A-levels and university are well signposted, other paths of more practical learning are not.

At best, the options are unclear, and at worst they are woefully under- resourced and underserviced. The curriculum has become a straitjacket, and too few young people get to experience practical, hands-on learning, or the chance to explore their talents and find out what they enjoy. By 16, young people's habits, self-perceptions and expectations are well established, and it is simply not easy to restore their confidence.

The evidence is compelling and frightening. The number of young people falling through the net is an enormous waste. It is a tragedy that so many of our young people are not reaching their potential.

In 2007, 189,000 young people (9.4 per cent of 16- to 18-year-olds) were considered Neets (not in education, employment or training). Add this to the proportion of 16-18s in jobs without training (11.9 per cent), and even after discounting those taking a year out or successfully starting to make a career, we are looking at a large proportion who may never go on to develop their potential at work or in life.

But I believe it is not too late. Instead of simply raising the school- leaving age by two years, we should help young people to understand and exploit their plethora of talents at a younger age.

At Edge we are campaigning for change. First, the UK needs a broader curriculum containing practical and vocational learning before the age of 14. We must give our young people exposure to, and experience of, the real world and the workplace and allow them to experience different types of learning.

Take 18-year-old Leanne Walden, who dropped out of A-levels and ended up in a job she found dull and unfulfilling, despite gaining 12 GCSEs. Leanne eventually began a diploma in plumbing at North East Surrey College of Technology. Imagine if some of the young people who now discover they enjoy practical subjects at 17 could explore their interests at 12. The desire to learn, and stay in learning, would surely be more effective than any amount of legislation compelling them to stay.

Second, we must ask young people what they think, what they enjoy doing, how they want to learn, and how best to involve them. Young people are naturally curious and seek to get on; those not in formal education and training are the best people to find the solution to their situation. Many schools claim to give learners opportunities to air their voice on their education, but how many do? Involvement should not be a token effort, or it will surely fail as quickly as other initiatives. At Edge, we strongly advocate student involvement and have mobilised a large group of young people through our Edge Learner Forum, which actively engages them in the process.

There are many talents and many paths to success. Our education system needs to motivate and inspire young people at a much earlier age. Leaving it until 16 before helping them to find the path that is right for them is missing the point. The answer, surely, is to prevent apathy arising in the first place.

Andy Powell, Chief executive of Edge, an independent education foundation.

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