Some politicians were born to be backbenchers, and the MP for Birkenhead is one of them. A perennial thorn in the side of Tony Blair's New Labour, Frank Field has specialised in saying the unsayable. He has now dropped his first clanger of Gordon Brown's short prime-ministership, and a pretty resounding one it is too, applying as it does to one of Mr Brown's favoured areas (education) and a policy (raising the school-leaving age) that he has personally endorsed.
In a new report, Mr Field argues that ministers should consider allowing some pupils to leave school at 14, as long as they achieve a required standard first. The money that would have been spent on their education could be kept in a personalised fund, in case they wanted to use it for study later.
Mr Field's suggestion does not just fly in the face of Government policy (that the school-leaving age should be progressively raised to 18), but it will also sound, to many, dangerously regressive. After all, extending compulsory schooling has been a hallmark of progressive administrations everywhere. Are we not continually told that in tomorrow's "knowledge economy", our children will need all the formal education that they can get?
Mr Field's idea may be unconventional, even contrarian (and published by a free-market think-tank to boot), but this is no reason for it to be instantly buried, as ministers looked set to do yesterday. Indeed, there are good reasons why a selective lowering of the school-leaving age should be taken seriously.
One argument in the proposal's favour is that it sprang from discussions with young people themselves. And while it's tempting to respond with the words, "They would say that, wouldn't they?" they have logic on their side. If truanting among low-performing 14-year-olds and upwards is already endemic, how many more are going to opt out when another two years are added?
School for these pupils is associated with failure. Even if more skills-related training is included in the curriculum, they may still not turn up. That will mean more teenagers on the streets with not enough legal things to do. Or – and this appears to be what the Government plans – it will mean coercive measures, backed by the law, to keep them reluctantly at school until 18, with predictable effects on overall discipline for those who do want to learn. What useful purpose would this serve, beyond keeping youth unemployment figures down?
The National Curriculum as it stands has been rightly blamed for alienating many less academically-inclined pupils. Despite Government efforts, the number of unoccupied school-leavers is rising. Ministers' recent apparent U-turn on the Tomlinson report's scheme for diplomas may do something to remedy this. But it will take time, and it remains that skills training has been abysmally neglected in our schools. We have failed to engender the sort of pride in the mastery of manual skills that exists in many other European countries.
There are risks in even the germ of Frank Field's idea. It would have to be clear that leaving school at 14 would never be discretionary – or it would soon be seen as a reward for bad behaviour. It would have to be conditional, as he suggests, on the achievement of a minimum standard, which might also spur some pupils to greater effort. Properly funded structures would also have to be in place in colleges and workplaces to ensure that early leavers were usefully, and gainfully, occupied.
But at a time when a decade of Labour education reforms is coming under increasing scrutiny, the wisdom of indiscriminately requiring everyone to stay at school until 18 deserves to be questioned. It's in the willingness of backbenchers like Frank Field to challenge orthodox thinking that their value lies.