This time last year, Alan Johnson was Education Secretary, and was talking up the idea, now to be considered as part of Gordon Brown's new vision, of raising the school leaving age to 18. Johnson believed that it should be seen as just as ghastly, from the contemporary perspective, for a 16-year-old to be in work "without getting help with continued schooling or training for qualifications" as it would for a 14-year-old to be treated in this way.
Sadly, we're not all quite as progressive as that. What really troubles most of us is the young people who are doing none of the above, the notorious "Neets" who are Not in Education, Employment or Training. They comprised a worrying 19.9 per cent of 16- to 17-year-olds when Labour came to power in 1997, and now make up a stunning one in four of the cohort. The problem is simple. Children in Britain are still leaving school at 16 in greater numbers than most comparable countries, even though there are few unskilled jobs for them to pick up. In the 1960s, there were 8 million unskilled jobs. Now there are 3.5 million. By 2020, according to a recent Treasury report, there will only be 600,000.
Never fear though, because the solution, according to many experts, not only those ever-changing ones in the Government, is just as simple, too. Raise the school leaving age first to 17, and then to 18, and that mismatch between what school prepares children for, and the world they have to survive in, just vanishes. Except that we all know it doesn't.
People don't become unemployable at 16 – they start becoming unemployable much earlier than that. One in five 11-year-olds is heading for irrelevance in the skills-based economy when he or she leaves primary school after seven long years and is still unable to read or write properly. One in six has got there after another four years, when they exit the education system altogether, unable to read, write or add up. Will two more compulsory years in the classroom make the difference here? Perhaps, for some children. Perhaps not.
Johnson last year confessed that the problems with many schoolchildren started early. He deplored "the situation at the moment where they switch off mentally at 14, before leaving school physically at 16". Now Ed Balls, Children, Schools and Families Secretary, is similarly detained. He understands that persistent truants are seven times more likely to become Neets at the age of 16, and understands also, presumably, that these particular horses cannot even be dragged to the proverbial water, let alone enjoined to drink it.
Which makes one wonder why the Government is poised to spend 10 years expanding school capacity and restructuring examinations to cater for people whose problem is that in the multiple choice of life they are opting for D, none of the above, at a much earlier opportunity. The problem is not that they don't spend long enough at school, but that the time they spend there is wasted.
This isn't just because their non-academic needs are not being catered for. Much effort since the 1980s has gone into expanding the curriculum and offering much more in the way of practical qualifications. There are now around 500 National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) available in a wide range of subjects, and much work has gone into the development of what 15 years ago were being called "modern apprenticeships".
As regards the latter, there is much grumbling about the lack of employer enthusiasm, so much that the influential Leitch review into Britain's long-term skills needs suggested that if employers didn't sign up voluntarily, then it should be made compulsory by 2010 for them to undertake to ensure that all of their employees became qualified up to the level of five A- to C-pass GCSEs or equivalent.
Yet the lack of candidates' formal education, if you listen to employers, is only part of the problem. What many of these young people lack are social skills. One cannot, surely, need too many qualifications in order to sit at a till in Tesco, scanning groceries all day. But one does need to have very basic skills such as an ability to get out of bed in the morning, dress presentably, get on with one's peers, display a little charm to the customer, and generally smile and make the best of things in order to beat off boredom and make the work bearable. In order to progress in the organisation, of course, one needs those skills in spades.
Many people who teach at further education colleges will complain of similar obstacles. An instructor in a highly regarded London college that trains aspiring beauticians says that many of her students, even if they know that the cuticle needs to be oiled in order for the "matrix" to stay healthy, will never make it as manicurists because they just haven't got the grace to chat to customers in an appropriate fashion.
The trouble is that the skills needed to thrive at work or in college aren't so very different from the most basic of those that are needed to get on at school, which is why all those fusty ideas about uniform, discipline, good manners and not running in the corridor are so important. It's why, also, headteachers must have the mechanisms available through which they can properly apply those ideas, including useful alternatives for children who are unable for whatever reason to play the 21st century skills game.
And it is a game, really. It is undeniable that there is a strong correlation between those parts of the country that have lost heavy industry and those which have the largest concentration of Neets. Yet the assumption that all of these unskilled jobs have been replaced by jobs that need lots of qualifications isn't quite right. If anything, we are now too hung up on formal attainment, whether or not it has any application in the employment market. People joke that you need a degree now to get any job at all, and that's not so far from the truth.
Many employers who wish to offer on-the-job training actually find the obsession with qualifications restrictive. They complain that while they might want employees to learn particular skills at college, it is sometimes difficult to draw down funding unless a whole course is taken, with an exam at the end, rather than just the portion of it that shows someone what to actually do in a given situation.
This problem is being slowly addressed, but, even so, with 114 or so awarding bodies producing anything between 4,000 and 5,000 qualifications, one can see that a degree in qualifications is now needed just to get one. It used to be that posh girls were not expected to continue their education, but instead were sent to finishing school. Maybe what we really need now, in our world turned upside down, is finishing schools for unposh boys. And we can't start finishing them too early.