Labour plans to ban employers from taking on under-18s without offering apprenticeships

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The Independent Online

New legislation banning the full-time employment of anybody under 18 will be considered by Labour for its next election manifesto.

The plan is being put forward by Barry Sheerman, Labour chairman of the Commons Education Select Committee, and already has the support of several senior party education figures.

David Miliband, the minister for School Standards, is making it clear that he believes action on the "scandal" of Britain's low staying-on rate in education for over-16s should be a priority for Labour during its next term in office.

Britain is lagging at 25th on a league table of 29 industrialised countries for the percentage of 17-year-olds in full-time education or training, according to a report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. About 250,000 youngsters a year - only 40 per cent of the age cohort - stay on at school to take A-levels.

Figures published this week by the Government also show that the number of youngsters leaving school without a single GCSE pass is growing. The number has increased by nearly 1,000 to more than 33,000.

Under the proposed legislation, all employers would be forbidden from offering employment to anyone under the age of 18 - unless they had arranged for them to follow an apprenticeship or provided training on the job.

Mr Sheerman said: "If we are serious as a society about progress, we really must take action to stop the numbers who are leaving school or training at 16. Here we are in the 21st century and kids can still leave education with no skills and no qualifications to go out into the workforce.

"It seems to me at this time what any Government should offer is a guarantee that education or training will be available to any child up to the age of 18," Mr Sheerman said.

"No child should be able to take full-time work without some form of education, training or apprenticeship being offered.

"This should be an absolute guarantee. Let's move into an age where you can't move into a job without proper training. We shouldn't be condemning someone to, say, being a shelf-stacker for life with no hope of any future prospects.

"I feel so impatient for change," he added.

Mr Sheerman said his proposals would, in effect, replace the existing school leaving age of 16 with a new education and training leaving age of 18. He said it would need to be backed up by legislation.

He added that he was hopeful that the inquiry by Mike Tomlinson into reforming education for 14 to 19-year-olds would support the recommendation when its final report is published next June.

The move is seen by many in the Labour Party as essential to providing the UK with a workforce equipped with the right skills to compete in the global economy.

Mr Miliband has already acknowledged that the UK's record in offering education or training to 16 to 19-year-olds is "indefensible".

Mr Miliband added: "Our future economic success requires us to educate more young people to a higher standard than ever.

"Personal prosperity will increasingly depend on it."

The Government has initiated several moves to try to encourage more youngsters to stay on in full-time education - including paying poorer students £30 a week to remain at school and college after they have reached the age of 16.

However, many in Labour Party circles acknowledge that far more needs to be done to bring the UK's record into line with those of its main international competitors and are therefore prepared to support Mr Sheerman's proposals to introduce legislation on the issue.