FORCING PEOPLE to stay in education or training until 18 will put them on to redundant courses that could harm their future earnings, an education policy expert says.
In a debate on raising the age for compulsory learning, Professor Alison Wolf said many teenagers would be better off heading straight into work than pursuing vocational qualifications.
And she believed fewer teenagers would have the chance to train while working because most companies employing them were too small to afford formal training.
Professor Wolf, a King's College London specialist in public sector management, was debating the issue with Barry Sheerman, chairman of the House of Commons select committee on education, at the Learning and Skills Network's spring lecture last week.
Mr Sheerman made an emotive plea that compulsory education or training until 18 would change our culture. "We are shifting the balance to a society where the expectation is that you stay in some sort of education or training," he said.
But Professor Wolf, who called herself a "masochist" for arguing before an audience of FE professionals against an expansion of the system, said:
"This is an ill-conceived proposal, not because of its underlying aim but because they have misdiagnosed the problem and misunderstood the solution.
"Young people have decided not to be in education in spite of the wide range of offers and education maintenance allowances.
"Are they stupid? Do we believe that forcing them will make them behave like birds in the nest with their beaks wide open, gratefully? Or are they reacting rationally to the offer in front of them?"
The qualifications on offer to disaffected teenagers were likely to be either untried diplomas or level 2 (GCSE equivalent) NVQs, which could reduce earning power by taking time that would be better spent in a job, Professor Wolf said.
"The average returns tell you the qualifications that really give skills that pay off in the labour market are rather traditional academic ones,"
she said. "Many of the qualifications they are looking to be put in for will not do them much good in the labour market."
In contrast, Professor Wolf said, getting a job at 16 helps their long-term career prospects because a track record is the best asset in the job market. Many young people say they learn the most while working.
But about half of young people with jobs work in small companies with fewer than 50 people, who will be driven away by requirements to train, she said.
"I would be prepared to bet a large amount of my own money that this proposal will reduce the jobs available to young people.
"It's mainly 16- and 17-year-olds who are employed by small companies. If you've got to release people for a day or two a week, you'll think, blow this, and go and hire a 20-year-old Pole."
She questioned whether this was the best way of spending pound;1 billion-pound;1.75 billion on education.
She said forcing them to participate seemed "a crazy way of using the money when there are so many other things you could do, including using it for 19-year-olds who want to return to education".