Concerns are growing about the impact of a radical but little-known reform coming into force next month which raises the education participation age by one year to 17.
Thousands of 16-year-olds are guinea pigs this summer in a reform that is the first step towards ensuring all teenagers stay in education and training until they are 18 by 2015.
The legislation was driven through the last Parliament, although fears are already being raised that there will not be enough places available to provide something for all 600,000 16-year-olds by the autumn. Ministers argue that massive extra provision is unnecessary since most 16 to 18-year-olds already engage in some form of education.
Raising the participation age is not the same as raising the school leaving age. Teenagers can fulfil its purpose by undergoing the equivalent of one day’s training a week while employed – or even study flexibly while holding down a full-time job.
A “myth-buster” document about the reform prepared for the Department for Education says: “You will still be able to work full time if you want to or volunteer full time or even set up your own business. You will still be participating as long as you are also doing part-time training which leads to a qualification.”
The Government is silent on the question of sanctions for teenagers who do not take part – a suggested £50 fine floated by Labour was ruled to be counter-productive.
Ministers have concentrated on increasing the number of apprenticeships to smooth the passage of the new regulations. There is also a bursary fund of £1,200 each for disadvantaged young people – such as those in care, teenage parents or the disabled who need financial support, Schools and colleges can top this up for those, say, who need help with travelling costs.
Nevertheless, John Healey, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury in the last Labour Government, reckons the shake-up will be “a massive missed opportunity”. Writing in the Municipal Journal, the local government management magazine, he argues that the axing of education maintenance allowances for 16 to 19-year-olds, combined with poor careers guidance, may prevent young people taking advantage of the reforms.
Research from Barnardo’s had shown the bursaries were failing to offer adequate support. “Teenagers from poorer families will not go to college if they can’t afford food, books and transport,” he said.
Conservative ministers had “washed their hands” of the rise in the participation age “which is why we have heard nothing from ministers or the national media about this historic change and opportunity in our education system”, Mr Healey added.
Simon Renton, president of the University and College Union, said: “Students should be encouraged to continue their education... but they should not be conscripted into staying on. Successful education enables, not coerces, learners and compulsion is not the way to motivate young people.”
Q&A: Education leaving age
Q: Why raise the education leaving age to 17?
A: Ministers argue it is necessary to provide all young people with some form of education and training - thus cutting down on the number of teenagers classified as “NEETs” - not in education, employment and training - and roaming the streets.
Q: If they have been bored or switched off from schooling, what’s the point of making them carry on for longer?
A: This is not raising the school leaving age to 17. It is raising the participation age and it could mean a teenager holding down a full-time job but going on week-long block release courses for training. All 16 to 17-year-olds will have to do is to be taking up a course which leads to some kind of qualification.
Q: What happens if they don’t?
A: Questions about sanctions are met with the response that the legislation is all about ensuring all young people have the opportunity to access the learning opportunity they want - a move to introduce £50 fines never got under way. Official pamphlets from the Department for Education argue that employers recognise the need for training and see their employees get it. Bursaries are available of up to £1,200 for those in hardship to help them take advantage of what is on offer.