Two more years for refuseniks? It's better than going up chimneys

13th June 2008 at 01:00
Like many in FE, I'm finding it hard to make up my mind on the Government's plans to raise the school leaving age by two more years

Like many in FE, I'm finding it hard to make up my mind on the Government's plans to raise the school leaving age by two more years. This requires that by 2015, all young people should be in some form of full- or part-time education up to their 18th birthday.

On the one hand, its aim is undoubtedly an enlightened one. People have been arguing against "enforced" education ever since the concept was mooted in the 19th century. You can be sure that "back in the day", there were voices suggesting that putting little boys up chimneys was "character building", and generally enthusing about the value of hearth-cleansing apprenticeships.

It was as late as 1880 that education - up to the age of 10 - was first made compulsory for all. This was quickly raised to 11 and once again by the end of the century to 12. That was the age at which my grandfather said goodbye to the classroom and embarked upon his career as a navvy.

In the 20th century the age was set at 14 after the First World War, 15 after the Second, and only reached 16 in 1973. At each stage it was argued, not only by employers, that it wouldn't work and that children, and their parents, didn't want it.

Essentially, of course, it was a class issue. No-one doubted that the children of the middle classes should be educated routinely up until at least 21.

Teachers, however, in colleges and elsewhere, are going to be apprehensive about how any new influx of "reluctants" into their classrooms will be managed. Many are still unhappy about the way that 14-16 school refuseniks have been decanted into FE.

There are also concerns about the value of the qualifications likely to be on offer to this new cohort, and the possible infringement of their civil liberties by being "compelled" to study.

Professor Alison Wolf of King's College London, who authored a study of the proposals for the think tank Policy Exchange earlier this year, was not handing out any compliments when she said of the policy: "It is one of the most ill-thought out pieces of education legislation I have ever seen."

For the moment then, maybe a bit of fence-sitting is the safest option.

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