Leading article: Is compulsion really the answer?

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The latest research from the Learning and Skills Council, the Government quango responsible for funding education after the age of 16, reveals that 41 per cent of teenage drop-outs ultimately return to school or college.

That is welcome news. It shows that our position in the world league table for staying-on rates - where we languish 23rd out of 30 countries for the percentage of youngsters in education and training at 17 - is not quite as dire as it appears. If many of those youngsters are returning to education because - a short time after quitting school at 16 - they realise they need more qualifications, that should mean that our skills base is healthier than the league table position would suggest.

It also poses some interesting questions for Education Secretary Alan Johnson as he pursues his strategy of introducing an education and training leaving-age of 18. A Green Paper to be published in the spring is expected to make it compulsory for youngsters to undergo full-time education or training up until 18.

What Mr Johnson - and the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, who is a supporter of the plan - have to balance is whether compulsory legislation is the best way to reverse our dreadful staying-on rate at 16. The drop-out return rate means there is still a hard core of 15 to 20 per cent of youngsters who do not carry on in some form of education after 16. Is compulsion the best way to deal with them - or are they likely just to play truant, as many of them may have during the last two years of compulsory schooling? Also, is it the best way to deal with the returners who may have benefited from the break they have had at 16 and be more enthusiastic about learning once they realised its importance after spending some time in the big wide world?

Two years ago, Mr Brown indicated that he would like to give all 16- to 25-year-olds the right to two years of free education or training to further their skills. It may be that this more flexible approach offers a better way of improving the nation's skills base than insisting that everyone stays on at school, college or in work-based training until the age of 18.