Leading article: Some awkward realities

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Our first response to the Government's plan to keep young people in some form of education or training until they reach the age of 18 is to ask why the timetable for the change is so long drawn out. Why wait until 2015, and risk a change of heart by another government, for a measure that is so obviously desirable? It is more than 30 years since education was made compulsory until 16. Compared with other industrialised countries, Britain has a relatively large number of 16- to 18-year-olds not in education, training or work - and the proportion has been growing. We also fare badly in international comparisons of skills and productivity. Much more needs to be done to prepare school-leavers for an economy where skills will be of the essence.

There are, however, several awkward realities that must be taken into account. The first is that, while a statutory requirement to participate in another two years of formal education might change the mentality of some pupils - it might, for instance, encourage some who currently leave school at 16 just because they can, to stay on to obtain useful qualifications - by no means all 16-year-olds may take that attitude. Bored by the rigidities of the National Curriculum, perhaps already truanting, these pupils would feel only resentment about being compelled to continue learning. In some poorer families, too, their pay packets might be sorely missed.

The option, broached yesterday, of formal warnings, fixed penalties, and eventually prosecution for those who drop out, risks not only alienating, but criminalising another group of young people. We already have misgivings about the effect of breached Antisocial Behaviour Orders that lead to criminal convictions. Are we to see 16- and 17-year-olds receiving a criminal record for not going to class? And if there are no penalties for non-participation, what are the alternatives? An extension of the existing educational maintenance allowances for over-16s might not provide enough of an incentive.

The most welcome aspect of the Education Secretary's announcement yesterday was his insistence that "we are not going to chain young people to the desk and make them do quadratic equations". If the less academically inclined are to gain something from their extra two years in education, new, more practical, courses must be devised; real training must be on offer, and a sufficient number of apprenticeships. The Government may well expect employers to help fund such courses, but that may be optimistic. Public money, probably quite a lot of it, will be needed. If the result is fewer unoccupied teenagers and a workforce equipped with modern skills, the time and money will have been well spent.

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