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.