The government announcement that a green paper will propose raising the school leaving age has already caused a flurry of excitement. Although some have understood the proposal to mean the swelling of the ranks at the school gates, it would seem more accurately to be about ensuring continued participation in education or training whether sixth form, college or apprenticeship.
It is so easy to be cynical about the proposal. After all, in a post-industrial society we do not have the jobs for young unskilled workers. Some have argued that the plans are simply part of the government’s strategy to infantilise the nation, taking away more freedoms, persuading us that we are not mature enough to make our own decisions. And of course young people on the streets give the impression of being up to no good. They make neighbourhoods feel unsafe. They get involved in crime.
Once we’ve heard all the arguments we may, or may not, decide to raise the school leaving age, but in the meantime should we not be improving education for the 12- to 15-year-olds who are struggling to remain in the system as far as 16?
There are at least three separate groups. First of all the children and young people who are in school but emotionally and intellectually disconnected, whether because there is too much other stuff going on in their lives or because the curriculum is not meeting their needs. Then there are those who demonstrate by their behaviour their disaffection, through truancy, disruption, violence. These two groups are receiving attention with varying levels of success.
But there is a sizeable group of children who, at present, are way outside this system and who have largely been forgotten, who are off the education radar. Sometimes it may be convenient to forget a child no one wants in their school. Sometimes the rules are operated bureaucratically and insensitively. Sometimes the alternative provision does not exist. But all children are entitled to education. With the right care all children will respond to education. We just have to get what we offer right. And we have to think very carefully about what sort of sanctions we impose for those who will not, or cannot, take part.
Helen Bonnick is a supervisor of school-home support workers and a social worker