Let school-shy begin work at 14, MPs urge

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The Independent Online
TRUANTING pupils should be allowed to start work as young as 14 and continue their education in the workplace and college rather than at school, MPs said yesterday. They say the national curriculum is too academic for disaffected children and argue that the Government needs to do much more to offer pupils work- related learning.

Members of the Commons Education and Employment Select Committee also argue in a report that schools should receive a financial bonus for helping disruptive children gain qualifications. And they should lose money if they permanently exclude a child. The "carrot and stick" approach is being considered by the Government's social exclusion unit, which is due to report shortly.

The MPs' report says there are at least 100,000 14-to-19-year-olds not in education, jobs or training and the figure could be 220,000. Around 45,000 pupils each year leave school without any qualifications; research suggests 16 per cent of 16-19-year-olds are in "status zero", neither earning nor learning.

Margaret Hodge, committee chairman, said: "We mustn't be precious about where a young person learns. Some kids feel school is not right for them. There are kids who disappear from the system. They may be in work. We want to bring them back into mainstream education. They may be better off in a college, where they are treated more as an adult." It is nonsense, says the report, to expect pupils without basic skills to study French and physics. Ministers have asked exam advisers to examine ways in which work-related learning can reduce truancy.

Schools should exclude fewer pupils, say the MPs. Permanent exclusions have risen fivefold since 1991 and only 40 per cent of excluded pupils return to mainstream school. Many schools which exclude pupils in the autumn term at present keep the money for them. They should lose it, says the report.

Those which take on excluded pupils and help them through a GCSE exam should receive extra cash. Ms Hodge accepted that schools should have the ultimate sanction of exclusions but said: "We have to change the balance of the scales. Teacher unions are tending towards saying there should be more exclusions." Good schools had low exclusion rates, she said. A Department for Education study had shown there was no correlation between exclusions rates, pupils' background and exam results.

Nick St Aubyn, a Conservative committee member, took a different view. "It is important that schools do not find the financial consequences of excluding a pupils are so severe that effectively that lever of discipline is taken away from them. We shouldn't automatically assume that a school with high exclusions rate is a failing school."

The report also recommends that the Government's New Deal programme to help 18-24-year-olds should cover 16 and 17-year-olds. Ms Hodge said: "Tackling disaffection among young people is the key to creating a more cohesive society. Today's disaffected are tomorrow's unemployed. Without prompt ... action we are in danger of creating an education underclass ... people without qualifications, without chance of a job and without hope."