Reasons to reject compulsion in post-16 education policy

The government has recently unveiled plans to keep teenagers in education or training until they reach 18. Although the reform is not set to become law until 2015 the government clearly wants schools to start laying the groundwork now. As an incentive, it announced plans to fine 16- and 17-year-olds who do not remain in education or do at least one day’s training per week.

Although there is a need to reduce the number of Neet children (those not in education, employment or training), but forcing them to stay in education is not the best solution for their particular needs.

The link between lack of education and poverty has long been recognised. And the need for a more educated workforce is evident as we move into an era where the number of jobs requiring high-level skills is steadily rising. At the same time there has been a massive reduction in the number of unskilled jobs. The reality is that if young people leave the education system without the skills demanded by the modern economy, they are likely to find themselves ill-equipped to face the challenges of the modern workplace.

The government’s proposals include:

  • Expanding the educational maintenance allowance system and combining it with a renewed focus on making sure curriculum opportunities are relevant and of interest to all young people
  • Enhanced tracking systems to monitor the progress of those most at risk of becoming Neets 
  • Guidance to identify and support those most likely to fall through the gaps.

    And it is not just schools who will carry these responsibilities, employers will also have to include part-time training opportunities for all employees aged 16-18 either in the workplace or through day release schemes.

    If this law is to work, the requirement will need to be enforced. There may well be a temptation for employers and young people to collude and there would be no way for local authorities to know what was going on without setting up expensive monitoring systems. Existing sixth forms and colleges could see their ethos change as they try to absorb students who are only attending because they are forced to. A recent UK survey from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development into the importance of adult learners wanting to learn concluded that although raising participation was an important goal “it is not clear that compulsion is the best way to achieve it”.

    Were the government to remove the compulsion element of the new proposals then the plans make good sense. Access to education and training should be an entitlement between 16 and 18 years, giving young people the right to continue studying while in employment. As far as the curriculum is concerned schools and colleges must continue to make subjects relevant and accessible to young people, and even more needs to be done to engage those with less inclination to academic subjects.

    The government is right to recognise the need for a personalised experience at school so young people can appreciate the benefits of continuing their education and, more importantly, acquire the basic skills in English and Maths necessary to do so. However, trying to force them to participate may be well intentioned but runs the risk of taking up huge amounts of time and money only to fail.

    Dawn Forshaw is head teacher of Wellfield Church Primary School, Burnley, Lancashire

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