Peter Inson: Lower the school leaving age, don't raise it

If they see schools as a kind of PoW camp in a war between the generations, who can blame them?
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The Independent Online

Richard Williams, chief executive of the education charity Rathbone, is absolutely right when he warns the Government that many more criminals will be created should it try to compel 17- and 18-year-olds to stay in education. His warning echoes Misspent Youth, the recent report by the economic think-tank New Philanthropy Capital, which pointed out the staggering cost of exclusions and truancy. Truancy and exclusion increase with age; once older teenagers come into the picture, the results will be even more dreadful - and even more young people will be put off education for ever.

Compelling attendance at school, which is how the law is understood by most people, can and does damage education, especially while the worlds of commerce, entertainment and now politics encourage them to see themselves as part of the adult world. Education is a strange artifice and requires a strong cultural base if it is to work.

Our society is confused about what it expects from young people; we expect more of the owners of animals than of parents; the parents of violent children are not held to account for injuries caused by them, whereas the owners of dogs that attack people are. At 16, youngsters may join the armed forces, and be sent into combat at 18, but may not drive a public service vehicle until they reach 25.

Children from ineffective families, and children whose adolescent confusion is compounded by a confused society, will resent being directed into schools where, from their point of view, they are demeaned. More or longer compulsion to attend school or school substitutes will only serve to increase the resentment of very young adults, whose capacity for trouble and self-harm will be fuelled by adults who claim to know best.

Corralling together these disaffected youngsters, herding them together in the very place that they resent, will make them worse, for they will easily be led away from whatever it is that teachers want to impose. Such youngsters need to be drawn into activities dominated by adult purposes, away from the influence of their peers. There they might be able to serve an apprenticeship in adulthood at least, whether it be in a place of employment, a charity or a voluntary organisation. In effect, a reduction of the school leaving age.

If we cannot offer disaffected teenagers a minimal freedom such as this, a chance to grow up among grown-ups, we should not be surprised if they see themselves as teenage prisoners of war, under no compulsion to behave, co-operate or work. If they see schools as a kind of PoW camp in a war between the generations then who can blame them? If we ask them to behave, they will, understandably, ask, "Why?" When they are compelled to "stay on" for a further two years, they will be driven even more readily into the arms of criminals and trouble-makers, who will become their apprentice masters. This was something Dickens understood when he created Fagin and his world of apprentice pick-pockets.

And it seems that there will still be no legal alternatives for youngsters - so truants will continue to be available only for illegal employment, anti-social behaviour and crime. Those who truant are likely to be the least able to motivate themselves constructively. Without legal alternatives to school, there will be even more latter-day Fagins.

As it stands, however, the law does not actually compel attendance at school; it requires parents to ensure that their children receive an effective education. Home-schooling is possible because of this, and organisations such as Education Otherwise exist to help and advise parents. Parents of most truants are unlikely to organise themselves and their children in this way. Were they able or inclined to do so, their concern and interest in their children would have resulted in positive and constructive attitudes to school. Yet the parents of disaffected teenagers might be encouraged along these lines.

Last year I interviewed a successful truant, a 14- year-old who was bored at school where, he admitted, he misbehaved as a result. He resented, he said, being shut up in school against his will, and resented even more the teachers punishing him while he was enduring the boredom that they imposed on him. He was fortunate, for his parents took the trouble to contact a company that had provided their son with work experience away from school, a company where he had worked very well indeed and had earned the respect of the adults there. The company agreed that on days when the boy was "not at school" they would help him out. For the company, and the parents, this was not just a ploy to avoid trouble at school, but a positive and educational experience, far more worthwhile than his experience of school.

In all our concern about the impact of difficult youngsters on the rest of us, we forget the wretchedness and misery they suffer. Rather than burden further schools, teachers and other children with pupils who are disaffected, disruptive and even dangerous, we should ask ourselves two things. Do we ever try to bring home to young people the enormity of the task of bringing up and educating children? Should we expect parents to be more accountable for their offspring?

What do we say of ourselves as a supposedly civilised society if we are not prepared to do this, if we continue to tolerate the proliferation of a troublesome and troubled minority?

The writer was a head teacher in both state and private education

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