Why increasing the compulsory participation age in education and training is the right move

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The Independent Online

Back in 1972, when the school leaving age was increased to 16-years-old, many young people could leave school without qualifications and find work easily. But today's job market is different and it's changing quickly. The glut of steady, low-skilled positions that was available when the economy was dominated by heavy industry and manufacturing sectors are on the wane. In their place, more and more skilled, technical roles need to be filled as IT, finance and the professional services sectors increasingly drive the UK's prosperity.

The figures demonstrating this point are stark. While there were still 3.2 million unskilled jobs of this kind in 2004, estimates suggest the number available will plummet to 600,000 by 2020. At the same time, we will need to produce qualified candidates to fill up to 4.6 million skilled positions.

In this new climate, we must ensure our young people get the education, training and qualifications they need to prosper. It's unacceptable that 10 per cent of 16- to 18-year-olds in this country are not in employment, education or training. Besides facing an uncertain future and difficulties finding steady employment, they are more likely to turn to criminal behaviour.

Plus, as globalisation gathers pace, our continued prosperity hinges on producing a highly skilled workforce that will allow our business sectors to keep up with competition from abroad.

This is why we have taken the decision to raise the participation age in full-time education and training from 16 to 18 starting in 2015. We believe it is vital for our economy and it is critically important for our young people's prosperity and life chances.

On the latter point, we know that staying on to gain qualifications improves job prospects and salaries significantly. On average, individuals achieving five good GCSEs earn at least 25 per cent more than those who don't. Further qualifications, and especially a degree, will increase that earning potential even more.

But we must also clarify certain misconceptions about our proposals. This is not about forcing young people to sit behind a desk in a classroom twiddling their thumbs until they turn 18, or about stopping people getting a job at 16 if that's what they want to do.

In fact, the new participation age will be heralded by reforms that will give young people unprecedented choice and control over their educational and professional development.

Young people will be able to choose to stay on full- or part-time in schools, work-based learning, apprenticeships or accredited training with an employer. If students get a job at 16, employers will have to make sure they are attending training programmes.

All children due to start secondary school in September 2008 will be able to study new diplomas that will offer a mix of academic and applied learning and will be of considerable value to employers and universities. Forthcoming changes to the curriculum for 11- to 14-year-olds will also help to prevent children from disengaging while they adjust to life at secondary school.

We have also introduced the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), which offers a financial incentive to keep learning for young people from less well-off backgrounds. More than 500,000 young people have received EMA payments so far this school year, with more 16-year-olds benefiting than in the whole of 2005-2006.

Research has shown overwhelming support for our proposals: some 90 per cent are in favour of increasing the compulsory participation age. But we need to harness this support effectively to engage our young people. Parents have a role to play in explaining to their children why these reforms are important and to emphasise the breadth of opportunity on offer.

If a young person has ambitions to be the next Alan Sugar and wants to enter the workplace at 16, then they will have the freedom to do so, but we will make sure their employers are under an obligation to ensure they get the training that will accelerate their professional progress.

Likewise, if they want to remain in education but pursue a more applied course of study they will be able to choose the diploma route, which by 2015 will span 14 vocational areas - from engineering to IT - and will blend class-based learning with work placements.

In short, the increase in the participation age is an exciting, progressive move. The potential benefits for our young people are huge, and our future success as a nation depends upon it.

Fundamentally, we believe we are letting young people down by allowing them to leave education and training without adequate skills at 16. Increasing the participation age - set alongside all the work we are doing to give pupils more choice and scope to personalise their learning - is a decisive step towards putting this right.

Bill Rammell is the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning