The research by the Policy Studies Institute provides evidence that young people are staying on in education for the simple reason that there is nothing else available. Staying on was the most popular choice for the whole group, regardless of academic attainment, sex or ethnic origin. Pupils who have no GCSE passes by the age of 16 are still more likely to stay on in education than try anything else.
The survey focused on disadvantaged pupils from 34 schools in six inner-city areas around Britain, examining the options open to them, the pathways chosen, and the degree of satisfaction or despondency they experienced during their first year after the end of compulsory education. Half the sample came from ethnic minorities. Seventy-six per cent stayed on in education, 11 per cent tried for a job, 9 per cent opted for some form of training, and 4 per cent chose something different such as travelling or caring for relatives.
Young people of Asian origin were most likely to stay on in education, while white youngsters were most inclined to try the job market. Black 16-year-olds were more likely to spend time on a training scheme than the others.
Ann Hagell and Catherine Shaw, the authors of the report, warn that the stay-on rate is not a cause for rejoicing: "It should not be assumed that staying on was necessarily a positive choice, it was simply the best of the options open to them."
Many of them, apparently, were dubious about the relevance of their courses to the careers they wanted to pursue. This choice did however produce more satisfaction than the other pathways. The white pupils who tackled the job market were more likely to have had a poor school career and to have been persistent truants, but those who did find work became the envy of their peers "several of whom specifically listed debt as a problem and wrote asking us to help them find work". Those who opted for a mix of education, training or other activities were the least satisfied.
The findings, say the authors, raise serious doubts about the assumption that the growth of further education is necessarily a good thing. "It is likely that many of these young people would have liked to have been in the employment market but it was no longer an option for them . . . simply using education and training as holding devices is likely just to postpone the point at which problems begin and increase the weight on the local and broader community. " More effort is needed to ensure 16-year-olds opt for suitable courses, they say.
The authors also highlight the increasing financial hardship faced by teenagers in the inner cities. Sixteen and 17-year olds cannot claim any benefit. "Some were obviously taking Youth Training for the financial rewards, such as they are, rather than using it as a stepping stone to something better."