Two more years until liberation

STEVE DOWNES Reports suggest the school leaving age is about to be raised from 16 to 18. The revolutionary step could signal an end to East Anglia’s skills shortage. But will schools and colleges be able to cope with thousands of extra students? And will those students want to be there?

STEVE DOWNES

For many disillusioned teenagers, the only thing that keeps them at school is the thought of leaving at 16.

Those youngsters see leaving day as liberation from tyranny. So are they going to college? You must be joking.

Now the morose minority face their ultimate nightmare - two more years of compulsory education.

After months of rumours, the government appears set to announce that the legal school leaving age will be lifted from 16 to 18.

It will be the first change since the age was altered to 16 in 1972 - having been upped from 14 to 15 in the 1940s.

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For those who simply cannot face another day of sitting in a classroom and obeying the teachers, there is another option - leave earlier if you can go

into work-based training or apprenticeships.

So from 2013, when the new rules are expected to become law, there will be no more cases of young people dropping out of education at 16 to a life of the dole or dead-end jobs.

That is the hope. Though there is no guarantee that those young people who are set on rebellion will knuckle down during the extra years at school, college or training.

That aside, it is fair to say that education secretary Alan Johnson's aim - which was supported back in November by (PM-to-be?) Gordon Brown - will be broadly welcomed across education sectors.

At the moment around 75pc of young people stay in education beyond 16. That, along with concerns that those who do endure are not always getting the training they need, has prompted repeated laments about a severe skills shortage.

Employers - including, memorably, Norwich Union boss Patrick Snowball - lambast education bosses regularly for the lack of basic skills among new recruits. Universities share their concerns, and have introduced top-up courses in numeracy and literacy.

This week's publication of new school performance tables deepened concerns by revealing that only 44pc of state school students achieved the benchmark of five A*-C GCSEs including the crucial English and maths. So 56 out of every 100 16-year-olds do not have sufficient grounding in the three Rs.

The government has already introduced education maintenance allowance (EMA) payments of up to £30-a-week to encourage young people from poorer backgrounds to stay on beyond 16.

The carrot has boosted further education numbers. But clearly the government feels the stick needs to follow to give the others no choice.

Last night, the idea was warmly welcomed by education leaders - with some reservations.

Dick Palmer, principal of Norwich City College, said: "It's quite clear that there are a number of young people leaving school at 16 who don't have the right employability skills.

"When you look at the league table results including maths and English, which are critical for employability, more than half of young people in the country don't have them.

"The extra two years will enable the educational sector to address that and make sure they've all at least got the full level two - five A*-C GCSEs - qualifications."

Mr Palmer added: "Also, for many young people that level two is not enough. We are looking increasingly to the future and saying that people need level three, which is A-levels, for a sustainable career."

Despite his warm reaction, Mr Palmer was concerned about how Norfolk's schools and colleges would cope with the potential influx of new students at schools and colleges.

He said: "There's not the capacity to cope with the extra young people in Norfolk at the moment. In Norwich, it would mean trying to accommodate 2,000 to 3,000 more young people.

"We would have to plan for enlargement of existing places or the building of new establishments."

Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) said: "Raising the school leaving age to 18 would have to be accompanied by the appropriate provision for the young person.

"An academic education is not appropriate for every young person and a vocational one is not appropriate for every young person. A mixture of the two combined may help many more young people.

"That will take an enormous investment in the education service and an expansion of the teaching force.

"It cannot be achieved overnight and it must be achieved, to be successful, with careful preparation and planning."

While there are no guarantees that the change will happen, Mr Johnson is believed to have tasked officials with laying the groundwork for it, with a green paper set to be published in the spring.

He said: "It should be as unacceptable to see a 16-year-old working, with no training, no education, as it is now to see a 14-year-old.

"A 14-year-old at work was common until the post-second world war Butler changes, but now you would find it repellent. We should find it equally repellent that a youngster of 16 is not getting any training."

If it goes ahead as planned, the 2013 start date means youngsters starting secondary school in 2008 would be the first affected.

According to John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, the success of the scheme depends on the smooth implementation of the new specialised diplomas for 14 to 19-year-olds.

The diplomas are designed to allow young people to progress through education at their own pace, picking from a menu of academic and vocational learning - with certain basics like English and maths a compulsory element.

Mr Dunford said: "We need to be clear that this is not strictly about raising the school leaving age, but about keeping young people in some kind of education or training until they are 18 - including apprenticeships and work-based training.

"It will only become reality with the successful implementation of the new specialised diplomas. The diplomas must not be positioned as second-class qualifications or we will have moved no further forward."

If the diplomas do not succeed, there is the nightmare scenario of thousands of disillusioned teenagers stuck in classrooms for another two years.

If they succeed in engaging those who are hardest to reach, the plan to raise

the leaving age may have the desired effect.