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We must invest in skills training

Britain is virtually unique in Europe in allowing young people to drop all formal education at the age of 16. Remarkably, the staying-on rate at 16 has barely changed since New Labour came to power. In fact, it has remained more or less constant since the early 1990s.

The new scheme of educational maintenance allowances (EMAs), aimed at persuading more young people to stay on in education, is therefore highly welcome. Around one in every eight 16-year-olds in Britain is neither in full or part-time education or government-supported training.

By 17, around one quarter of young people have left the system. Most of these enter the labour market, taking on jobs that offer no further opportunities to learn new skills and acquire qualifications, other than the time-honoured practice of picking it up as you go along. Even among those who stay in full-time education, retention and achievement rates are lower than anyone would like.

The announcement follows a systematic testing of EMAs in 56 local education authorities in England, as well as parallel schemes in the other UK nations.

The pilot EMA schemes have been systematically evaluated, and for once it seems that the Government has found something that makes a real difference to people's behaviour. The most recent and thorough evaluation, undertaken jointly by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and a team from Loughborough university, concluded that the pilot EMA payments had a positive effect on both participation and retention.

The researchers also found that the impact of EMAs was greatest among young people from the families of unskilled workers, as well as families where no adults were working. Even more importantly, the impact was highest among young people with few or no Year 11 qualifications.

Given the faltering progress of so many other government initiatives in lifelong learning, and the failure of others, the undoubted impact of EMAs must come as a relief. Given Labour's denunciation of voucher schemes while in opposition, and the mess over individual learning accounts when in power, it is an irony that vouchers for young people should turn out to be a success story for New Labour. But while the decision to roll out EMAs to the whole of England is a sensible one, they will only work if complemented by other steps.

Essentially, EMAs tackle one part of the skills equation: namely, demand.

In a series of studies of school-leaver behaviour, David Raffe of Edinburgh University has shown that young people's decisions at 16-19 are influenced by a wide variety of factors.

These include the quality of schooling, with staying-on rates rising in line with achievement rates in local schools, and local opportunity structures. EMAs provide a valuable incentive to stay on in education. But they do not tackle the option of work with no further education and training.

It is the availability of low-skilled (and low-skilling) jobs that is at the heart of the British phenomenon. In the German-speaking world, in Scandinavia or in France, the proportion of young people entering university is lower than in Britain. But the number who move from school to a combination of both learning and work is much higher.

The much-praised dual system in Germany and Austria has its flaws. These include the rigidities arising from the extension of old-style apprenticeship regulations to new occupations, and the difficulties of adapting the dual system to the different types of local economy that are found in the states of the former East Germany.

But such combinations of work and learning do provide a strong induction into a trade. They also accustom young people to a life of learning alongside work. Our system encourages them to think of work and learning as alternatives. The EMA scheme promotes this unhealthy dualism by concentrating on support for full-time study.

Nor is it accompanied by action to prevent employers from recruiting young people into low-skilling jobs. Few people want to see more regulation of employment relations. But if Chancellor Gordon Brown can implement a minimum wage, then the Government can just as easily stipulate a minimum investment in skills.

John Field is deputy principal at the University of Stirling and author of Lifelong Learning and the New Educational Order

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