Why not leave school at 16?

Leaving school at this age did Julie Burchill, Richard Branson and Alan Sugar no harm at all. So why force a whole generation of eager young things to stay in class until 18?

What is wrong with leaving school at 16? It was good enough for Sir Alan Sugar and Sir Richard Branson, who are now worth billions of pounds between them. It was good enough for Sophie Okonedo, who may receive an Oscar tonight for her performance in Hotel Rwanda; and good enough for Delia Smith, who made a fortune from telling people how to cook simply.

What is wrong with leaving school at 16? It was good enough for Sir Alan Sugar and Sir Richard Branson, who are now worth billions of pounds between them. It was good enough for Sophie Okonedo, who may receive an Oscar tonight for her performance in Hotel Rwanda; and good enough for Delia Smith, who made a fortune from telling people how to cook simply.

But it is not good enough for Ruth Kelly.

The Education Secretary said last week that she plans to "effectively" raise the school leaving age from 16 to 18, forcing youngsters to find an academic or vocational course to see them through to 18, whether they like it or not. At the moment many of them do not.

Only 71 per cent of 16-year-olds stay on in full-time education, putting Britain 24th out of the top 28 industrialised nations. Ms Kelly wants the percentage staying on to be above 90.

Kayle Cavalla chose to leave, and does not regret it. She has worked as an assistant hairdresser at a Toni & Guy salon since finishing school in south east London last year. She is 16.

So is Chris Fullbrook, but he is still a pupil at Richard Challoner Secondary School in New Malden, Surrey: after taking 11 GCSEs this summer he intends to remain a pupil for the next two years to do his A-levels.

Kayle believes staying on would have been wrong. "It felt the right time for me to leave," she says. "I was happy at school but I wanted to get out there and do what I wanted to do. If I had gone to college for three years to train then I might have ended up going to work in a hairdressing salon then, only to find that I hated it. This way I get to train a day a week and the rest of the time I'm earning money, I'm getting used to the environment and I'm getting hands-on experience.

"Some of my teachers tried to persuade me to stay on to do A-levels, but I can't imagine I'll regret not taking their advice. If I ever want a job that needs more qualifications, I'll just go back to college."

Chris, who is a Kingston-upon-Thames member of the UK Youth Parliament, says the only decision for him was whether to stay at school or go to sixth- form college. "I decided the familiarity of school meant I'd work better here. You've also got a chance of getting a post like head boy or prefect, which looks good on your CV."

Moving to sixth-form college suits many youngsters who want to continue their education but are ready for a change: Nazimah Muhammad, 17, says life at Sir George Monoux College in Walthamstow is a lot more relaxed than school and there's more independence. She is against making it compulsory to stay on, though. "It would cause a lot of disruption - at the moment, people are there because they want to learn." Not everyone agrees: Nicola Owusu-Akontoh, 16, who's in the sixth form at Trinity Catholic High School in Woodford Green in Essex, says the friends she knew who left school last summer aren't all thriving. "Some are still looking for work or aren't happy in their jobs and keep moving from one thing to another. Most jobs these days need qualifications, so what's the point of letting young people leave school without them?"

John Doyle, head of the 1,500-pupil Ormskirk School, an 11-18 comprehensive in Lancashire, says it is only worth keeping young people at school if they want to stay there and if there is something useful for them to do. "At the moment the curriculum doesn't engage everyone effectively - it doesn't cater for the aptitudes of every student.

"There's also a problem about schools being expected to be all things to all people: my school is big enough to be able to provide a vocational curriculum, but that isn't available everywhere," he adds.

Before the Second World War it was not uncommon for people to leave school at 14. After the war ended, the expectation was that most would finish at 15 or later 16, while the brightest went on to study for A-levels and university. But since the massive expansion of the university system, which has yet to be matched by funding for students or colleges, the expectation has become that most pupils will want to stay on. Now Ruth Kelly is making that formal.

John Bateman, chief executive of UK Youth, a confederation of organisations that support young people in their personal development, says that while more education is always a good thing in principle, in practice not all youngsters are going to be sufficiently tuned into the education system to make staying on the right choice for them.

"For some young people, school has been a place where they've lost self-esteem and where they don't believe they can ever succeed," he says.

"For them, a move out of the formal learning environment to a workplace can be hugely positive. And there's no reason to believe that learning has to stop when you move out of full-time education: I'd prefer to think of it as a lifelong process." The knights Branson and Sugar would surely agree.

16 successes who left school at 16

Sir Alan Sugar, 57, computer tycoon and former chairman of Tottenham Hotspur; said to be worth £700m. Now fronting the 'The Apprentice' on BBC2: 'You can be a big success without passing exams'

I left school at 16, to become a civil servant initially. I was going on to do A levels, but my friends had already left and I needed to make some money. Maybe I made a mistake in not finishing the course, although it didn't hold me back.

Actually, making kids stay on until 18 is not a good idea. You're going to frustrate those who don't have it in them to get the qualifications for higher education. They need to get into practical work and gain experience of the world. I'm a great believer that you can run successful businesses without a single GCSE: my middle son left at 16 and has done very well for himself.

In my day, very experienced teachers decided at 14 which path kids were going to go down in life.

They would say 'you're going to be the greatest salesman on earth, you're a plumber, you're going to be a rocket scientist'. Then they would adjust the curriculum to suit them, or let them leave at 16. You have to trust in teachers' judgement. What do you gain by holding on to people who are going to drive buses? It's just a devilish government plot to keep these people off the unemployment figures.

Sir Richard Branson, 54, founder of the Virgin record label and airline; estimated fortune £2.6 billion: 'I have no regrets at all about leaving'

The headmaster of my school said to choose my education or my magazine, 'Student'. I chose my magazine and I have no regrets at all. I got my education through interviewing people and editing, and my business knowledge from becoming the publisher.

Both my children are in further education, my daughter wants to be a doctor. If the Government is going to keep people in school for another two years it needs to make teaching tailored to the individual's needs and what is relevant for life. Why do we teach so much French when 50 per cent of Americans speak Spanish and Spain is where most of us go on holiday?.

Ivan Massow, 37, millionaire businessman and activist who advised the Conservatives: 'Rejection spurred me on'

I left school at 16 because I just assumed that was what I would do. My school didn't have a sixth-form and only the posh kids went to the one nearby. I had dyslexia and found it very difficult concentrating at school.

I think that's typical of an entrepreneur, because in those confined circumstances, you tend to fail, which makes you resentful.

Being rejected by the education system gave me the drive to prove those teachers wrong.

The Government wants us to be homogenised: go through the same educational tube and be absorbed into big industry.

Don Paterson, 41, poet and winner of the Forward, TS Eliot and Whitbread poetry prizes: 'Everything was boring'

I lost all interest in my own education after Mrs Garland in primary. After that, there wasn't anyone to impress. I just got bored with everything, because someone I didn't like, ie not Mrs Garland, was telling me to read. Aware that I needed to make the ground up somehow, I've been making sporadic attempts to educate myself since the age of nine.

Because they will never have a certificate that says 'OK - you can stop, now', autodidacts can never be done with learning. Your average complacent graduate has some notion of their own intelligence, but autodidacts are only familiar with their ignorance.

Julie Burchill, 45, journalist, and novelist whose life is the subject of a play, presents 'Chavs' on Sky One tonight: 'People who stayed on have so little originality'

I left school at 16 because I got a job on the 'New Musical Express', but I wouldn't have stayed, anyway. I was due to do A levels, but all the girls I liked had left - all the tough girls. I didn't want to be stuck in a school full of swots.

I've never once regretted it. I'm always amazed when I talk to people who went to university how little originality they have. I have loads of friends who did go to university but I try to forgive them for it. I like people despite that.

I've always hated the idea of old boy networks - you would never know if you'd made it on your own merit. I'm so glad I didn't have a college clique. I was promoted by older people. Over the years I've had people boast that they were at university with me. When they find out I wasn't at university they're all really embarrassed. Isn't the drop-out rate for students really high, now? That says it all, doesn't it?.

Alicia Keys started taking piano lessons at seven and writing songs at 14. She signed to Columbia Records at 15 and left school the following year. Now 23, she has sold 10 million albums: 'I was in the studio all night, then into school'

When I was younger, I never felt that I exactly belonged.[Keys tried to combine nights in the recording studio with lessons in the daytime, until she came up against Homer]. I was in the studio all night, then coming into school. I tried to push my classes back so I could get up at eight and do homework. When we had to [study] 'The Odyssey' I said, 'I can't do this. This is not going to work out.'

Sophie Okonedo, 36, writer, actor and Oscar nominee, left school to run a clothing stall

"I had a job working in nothing very much. I read an advert in the back of 'Time Out', saying, 'Do you want to be a writer? Come along to this workshop'."

Bernie Ecclestone, 74, controls Formula One motor racing

"My father let me leave school as long as I would go back and study for a degree in chemistry. So I left, then realised I didn't want to do chemistry. I wanted to run my own business."

Delia Smith, 63, cookery guru and majority shareholder in Norwich City FC

"I left school without a single O-level. I tried hairdressing and shop assistant. Then I got a boyfriend who was always going on about what a great cook his previous girlfriend was."

Philip Green, 53, tycoon who owns BHS and Top Shop, among many others

"If you want to get on in life, then you get on. Some people need A-levels whereas other people don't. What you need is common sense."

Shena Mackay, 60, author of 'Heligoland', shortlisted for the Whitbread prize in 2003

Her parents did not encourage their children to get degrees, mainly for financial reasons. "We knew we had to get out there and earn a living pretty quickly."

Wayne Rooney, 19, Manchester United and England star

"I would go to school and then I would go training - that was my life. The only subject I liked was maths - it's the only GCSE I sat. By then I was 16 and knew I had a future at Everton."

Anna Raeburn, 59, author, broadcaster and agony aunt

"My parents did not push me about university. I did six months at secretarial college, where I learnt to type badly. I spent all of my twenties regretting that I hadn't got a degree."

Adrian Lester, 36, British actor who became a Hollywood star with 'Primary Colors'

"I was crap at school. I was asthmatic so I couldn't ever do sports well enough. Once I decided to follow the performing/singing line, things became a lot easier."

Amma Asante, 35, Bafta winner for writing and directing 'A Way of Life'

At 16 joined the cast of Grange Hill, on which Anthony Minghella was a script director. "I remember thinking, 'Wow, you can be a writer and a director too'".

Pierce Brosnan, 51, former James Bond, ran away to the circus to be a fire-eater

"I walked in and there were all these different people; working class, middle class, black, white, musicians, poets, writers. It was awesome."

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