Britain's campaign to get more young people into education and training is grinding to a halt even though the UK still lags well behind competitor nations, according to a new survey.
A study from the Centre for Economic Performance dubs Britain a "slow learner" in the education stakes, despite efforts to step up participation over the past 10 years.
The report, the first full analysis of participation trends over the decade, confirms fears that efforts to persuade 16- and 17-year-olds to stay on in education have foundered.
Though the proportion of 16-year-olds in full-time study was 70 per cent in 1995, up from below half a decade ago, the upward trend has slowed recently and last year actually went into reverse.
Meanwhile, in Japan, the USA and France, more than 90 per cent of the same age group are still in education.
The study, by Hilary Steedman of the Centre for Economic Performance and Andy Green of the London University Institute of Education, provides the foundation for recommmendations on widening participation due soon from a committee set up by the Further Education Funding Council and chaired by lawyer Helena Kennedy.
The report says more research is badly needed to identify why participation among young people has hit a barrier. The present threshhold will be difficult to pass, it suggests, because the small core of teenagers not in training, education or employment has already proved hard to reach.
Further research will need to focus on this group's reasons for opting out, and examine what alternative kinds of study might draw them in.
However, the report, "Widening participation in education and training: a survey of the issues", acknowledges the main scope for change among this age group lies not in hunting out the most resistant potential students but in improving the quality of participation for existing young learners.
The main challenge for further education will be improving staying on and success rates, which are currently a "cause for concern", the study finds. On average, just under a third of all students embarking on further education courses fail to complete them. Young people studying full-time are most likely to gain a qualification but those participating in Youth Training are least likely.
The authors identify lack of key literacy and numeracy skills as a significant cause of drop-out and failure. But they call for significant further research to establish why young people drop out, what happens when they choose inappropriate courses and how guidance and support for students can be improved.
They echo the growing consensus that without a policy change, Britain will not hit its target of 60 per cent of young people qualified up to two A-levels or equivalent by the turn of the century.
The study analyses the reasons for the 10-year increase in students staying on in the education system after 16. A key factor is the introduction of GCSE to replace O-levels, offering students a greater chance of obtaining good grades and spurring them on to continue studying.
Changes in the labour market, bringing poorer job prospects for young people, have also encouraged many to stay on in education instead of trying their luck with employers. Almost a quarter of 16-year-olds were in employment in 1983, but the figure had dropped to just 8 per cent by 1993.
It is impossible to predict whether the demise of the youth labour market in Britain is permanent, says the study. If it is, as in the case of many of the UK's continental neighbours, there will be a strong "push" from employers towards education, but that will only boost participation if the courses offered by schools and colleges are seen as attractive and useful in improving job prospects, and if the economy generates increasing demand for skills.
While there may be little scope for boosting participation among 16- and 17-year-olds in further education, the supply of potential adult learners is still widely untapped, the report concludes. Though adult participation has also increased over the decade, with more than a million adults now enrolled at FE colleges, as many as 10 million adults have not reached a national vocational qualification level 2 or equivalent. But the study warns that "imaginative and flexible" methods for teaching and learning will need to be put in place in order to achieve the improvement needed.
The Kennedy Committee report, due in November, is expected to follow many of the leads established in the Centre for Economic Performance paper, including identifying ways to improve the quality of current participation as much as seeking out new groups of students.