Don’t make them stay at school

The Education Bill we will debate today in the Commons contains the worse kind of gesture politics. Frustrated at the lack of progress in raising standards in schools, and worried by the continuing difficulties of getting 16-18 year olds into work where they are not studying A levels, the government has come up with the proposal to require 16-18 year olds to study and train, whether they wish to or not.

The government protests when we say we oppose raising the school leaving age form 16 to 18. They point out that the compulsory education for this age range could include day release courses and properly structured apprenticeships, as well as staying on at school.

None of this apologia overcomes our main objection to the scheme. If you compel young people to study at school or College, you recruit unwilling learners into the midst of academic institutions, sixth forms and Colleges ?? that have ben used to working with volunteers.

There is no evidence that you can compel people over 16 years of age to learn if they do not want to. Indeed, if you are to succeed at adult learning you will only do so if you really really want to yourself. Another party, TV programme, drinks with friends, or even hanging around on street corners will always seem a better option than reading the extra book, revising the coursework or struggling with something you do not readily understand. Those who do make the academic effort do so because they want to succeed, and believe that they will be able to do so.

There are several general reasons why too many young people do not wish to stay on at school and do not sign on purposefully for further training.
The first is that too many 16 year olds do not read, write and use figures with anything like the amount of skill needed to be able to undertake a proper course of further study. The remedy is not to compel them to work at their schoolbooks when they have already failed, but to get them to master the basics at a much younger age when adults do have more sway over them and when we all agree they should be required to be at school.
The second is that too many have been told by the system that they are not expected to succeed. Their background and social circumstances are used as excuses for low performance in earlier years. Unwittingly teachers and other adults in the community set low expectations and discover even these are not met. We should not expect less of a child from a low income household, whilst recognising that they might need more support and encouragement to rival the child from the self confident household.
The third is that some of these young people do not believe the school work or skills training will lead them to a job they want to do and could do. There have been too many disappointing government schemes getting young people through courses that have little economic value. There is too much of a temptation to design a course that people can pass instead of designing one that it good and useful to employers and then discovering how to teach so people can pass.

Professor Wolf, writing for Policy exchange, debunks the governments claim that this measure will increase National income by ?`1.6 billion a year, getting many more young people into productive work at 18. She believes it will reduce output by ?1.7 billion a year, as she fears many small businesses will decide they can no longer afford to employ 16-18 year olds and have to work around the compulsory education and training that will punctuate their working lives. She also fears that the governments qualifications from this scheme will have little value. Her fears needs careful examination by the government. She will be right if this is just a cynical exercise in massaging the unemployment figures, and if the government concentrates on numbers and not on the quality of what is being done.

The best guarantee that quality will matter and courses will be designed with employer needs in mind would be to allow choice and not impose compulsion. The other day a businessman came to service my gas boiler. In the past he told me he has not expanded his successful business as much as he would like because he could not find the high quality young gas engineers he needed to keep up the quality of his work. This year he told me he had taken on two. They both had things in common. They both had really really wanted to be gas engineers, they both had undertaken a serious course of study to achieve their aim, and both had paid their own money for the course. That level of commitment persuaded a reluctant employer that they can make a contribution.

The government needs to study ideas to make it less easy for young people who want to live on benefits and who do not have that determination to do something with their lives. That would be a better contribution than trying to think up exams people can pass that they claim represent good training which may not be so seen by employers.Insisting on better achievement when young with remdial classes and extra work for those primary school children not managing to read and write would also be a better and cheaper solution.

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11 Comments

  1. Letters From A Tory
    Posted January 14, 2008 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    Raising the school leaving age is not a crisis per se, because most other European countries have used such a system very successfully for decades. The main difference between them and us is that their education systems provide opportunities for everyone that are appropriate and beneficial to future employment and earnings. Pathetic A-levels and the appalling new diplomas do not provide anything like a comparable service.
    http://lettersfromatory.wordpress.com

  2. haddock
    Posted January 14, 2008 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    A large part of the problem of education and training of young people is illustrated by your use of the words 'gas engineer' to describe someone who fixes a boiler.
    A nurse who changes a dressing is not a doctor, the chap who fettles your pilot light is not an engineer.
    If young people were convinced that a career in engineering would give them status and salary fitting their qualifications then there would be a ready supply of engineers.
    It is arrogance of each generation to assume that they are cleverer than the last. For a long time schooling ended at the age of 14 and manhood started at 21, that is a 7 year apprenticeship in the art of being a grown up.
    We now have the insanity of proposing to imprison children until 18 yet allowing them to vote, as adults, at 16.

  3. Stuart Fairney
    Posted January 14, 2008 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    As a refugee of a desperate 1970's state-run comprehensive, I have to agree entirely. Wild horses couldn't have forced me to continuing that particular nightmare beyong the minimum legal age.

    I did ultimately get back to education, but only after a couple of years when I'd worked things out for myself and went back to the right, vocational degree. Forcing the unwilling to do worthless courses is a wasteful gimmick (which starts to explain why the government are so keen on the idea I suppose).

  4. mikestallard
    Posted January 14, 2008 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    This is what the schools in our area offer:
    Grammar School (indep

  5. DennisA
    Posted January 14, 2008 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

    My Grandfather was a dyer in a cotton mill; my father, a joiner, left school at 14 and served a 7 year apprenticeship. My mother was a wartime engineering machinist and then stayed at home to bring up her family. We were "working class" by any definition.

    My brother and I both passed the 11 plus and went to the local Grammar school. Our parents struggled to buy uniforms and pay for school trips but they managed. My brother stayed on in the sixth form, but I left at 16 even though I could have stayed on to 18. I had had enough of school.

    I went into a pre-college training year in agriculture, my own choice, and subsequently went on to 3 years in agricultural college and made my career in that industry, even though there was no family background at all.

    The more practically minded pupils who didn't make Grammar School went to Technical College and learned trades and became bricklayers, plumbers, electricians, car mechanics etc. Of the remainder who went to secondary modern schools, many subsequently went of their own volition to night school to remedy failed exams and improve skills.

    The system worked, there was total inclusion for poorer families because selection was on ability, not on income.

    Why do so many politicians think it is unfair, including some Conservatives.

  6. anoneumouse
    Posted January 14, 2008 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    Education……….is not a natural phenomenon

    As an individual, you have a desire to learn or you don't.

    You cannot be forced to learn

    The state cannot create conditions and force you into acting like an academic, learner, communist or conformer. Those who are wise and do not wish to accept the gov…er…ment dogma, eventually, with no other means of rational protest, (go to extremes – ed)

    Vote Labour, it really doesn't make sense.

  7. judy from the north
    Posted January 15, 2008 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    Spare a thought for the teachers in this awful decision to raise the school leaving age.Trying to handle students who dont want to learn is a nightmare they disrupt everyone else and can make teaching unbearable.We count down the days until unruly pupils leave and we dont have to give them a platform for bad behaviour.On the other side of the coin there are many millionaires out there who knew school was not for them what will be the provisa for them.I feel this is to keep the unemployment figures down and try to keep gangs off the streets surely not our job.

  8. Bazman
    Posted January 15, 2008 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    I was always propelled by the idea of having some money. The threats and persuasion being that if I did not get at least some reasonable grades I would not be employed and would have to work with my father who was self employed. Not a nice picture for a 15 year old.
    My wife was a supply teacher in Bedford for a short time looking after, not teaching, feral kids that the other teachers would not. They walk around, talk on the phone, make monkey noises, and any attempts to control them was met with 'rights'.
    They will of course be going onto Royal colleges to continue their education at great expense to the taxpayer and their rights will be explained very thoroughly and forcefully there. Prison.
    Any government has to realise that not everyone can sit at a desk and learn and some may only ever have physical skills that require a certain technique. Tyre fitter for example. Very simple work, but are you going to let someone with little skill or technique fit tyres to your 50 grand or maybe 500 quid pride and joy? How about an exhaust? Battery? Could cost you dear if you do, as it's not like the old days of bish, bash, fitted.
    Many of todays school leavers do not even have the skills to develop these skills.

  9. EML
    Posted January 15, 2008 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    An excellent post Mr Redwood.

    Isn't it just an admission of failure for the Government to have to raise the leaving age?

    Why can't children get the required skills by the age of 16?

  10. Adam Johns
    Posted January 15, 2008 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    This new scheme will suck up funding from teaching pupils Ages 4 to 16 who can still be taught something useful. Talk about slamming the stable door. 16 is atleast two years too late to be inspiring anybody to do anything with their education and all this law will do will damage the chances of those who would have remained in the system voluntarily. Although there will be a portion of these new pupils who go to technical colleges and take up apprenticeships, too many will end up staying on in their schools until Sixth Form, disrupting two more years worth of classes and end up failing some low-quality A-Levels. I'm not sure what Ed Balls is thinking. Stupid man.

  11. Cliff
    Posted January 15, 2008 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    The question is, what do we expect our education system to supply? What is the end product?

    Do we wish to teach a mixture of academic subjects as well as vocational subjects? Do we just wish to turn out drone worker taxation cash cows for the Nu Labour project?

    What the whole Nu Labour movement fail to understand is that people are different. Their abilities are different in both intellectual ways and physical ways. The whole concept of one-size fits all is completely wrong and no end of massaging figures will change that fact. John Redwood is a very intelligent man and his education, to be stimulating and challenging for him, would need to be different to someone with the IQ of a sugar puff. However, David Beckham for example has great physical abilities but may struggle to gain a degree in astro physics.
    Education needs to be geared towards the individual with some following an academic path and others following a more vocational path. Some may even struggle with basic reading and writing, but that is why individual education programmes are needed.
    We did have this in the UK up until the early 1970s, it was called the grammar, technical schools and secondary modern system, Not very PC but it worked very well.

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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