Education quandary: 'Raising the school leaving age to 18 is stupid, isn't it?'

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'Raising the school leaving age to 18 is stupid, isn't it?' My experience is that nothing works for young people if they aren't motivated'

Hilary's advice

This comes from a weary secondary-school teacher who thinks the plans to keep young people in education (although not, exactly, in school, as he says) are plain daft, and he is in good company. Alison Wolf, professor of public sector management at King's College, London, thinks they will infringe civil liberties, wreck the youth job market and do nothing to give young people the kind of qualifications that employers take heed of. In a pamphlet published by the Policy Exchange think tank, she criticises the plan for being "one of the most ill-thought-out pieces of education I have ever seen".

But developed countries such as ours need a constant supply of educated workers, and there are jobs for virtually all young people who leave school at 16. That is why the Government has brought in 14 to 19 diplomas, which will span an array of specialist sectors, from engineering through hair and beauty to humanities. They are supposed to help pupils to "engage with their learning" in more exciting ways, to equip them better for adult life and to increase the supply of skilled labour.

Yet this teacher is right. No matter how exciting and relevant these new diplomas turn out to be, in the end motivation is everything. It may be that a different curriculum will light the fire of ambition and enthusiasm in more students. But if the new diplomas just turn out to mean a bunch of disinterested youngsters lolling around at the back of a healthcare class instead of a history one, it will be a very expensive failure.

Readers' advice

I think it is a dreadful idea to raise the school-leaving age to 18. I agree that youngsters need to motivate themselves; however, many are immature and unsure of what direction they want their lives to take.

A better solution would be to introduce compulsory work experience for a year, whereby young people spend one to two weeks at different places of employment. That way, they would experience jobs they would otherwise never know about. Practical experience in an adult environment is far more beneficial than any number of hours in a classroom.

Kirsteen Black, Ross-Shire

Raising the school-leaving age to 18 could be viewed from another perspective if we can be flexible about what it means. If, for example, it could result in two years of free study chosen and directed by the learner, and if that study was not necessarily based inside a school building, then raising the school-leaving age might be viewed as an exciting new development.

We are already seeing greater use of new digital technologies that enable learners to work together in new ways, and these could help to facilitate a more diverse way of learning that would enable learners to develop skills relevant to their lives outside of education, to take on responsibility, and to be active in developing their own learning.

Tim Rudd, Senior researcher, Futurelab

I think it would be better if young people did compulsory community service. They would acquire both skills and discipline, and we would get the benefits of their work.

Jane Primore, Leeds

Next Week's Quandary

Dear Hilary, My twins started at secondary school in autumn and only get half an hour for lunch. They have to rush their food and have no time to see friends. We have taken it up with their head of year, who says it is for discipline reasons. Isn't this more about the school than the children?

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to arrive no later than Monday 28 January, to 'The Independent', Education Desk, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or email Include your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Collins Paperback English Dictionary 5th Edition