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Alan Johnson backs plans to raise school leaving age to 18


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Alan Johnson backs plans to raise school leaving age to 18


By JAMES CHAPMAN Last updated at 23:07pm on 9th November 2006 commentIconSm.gif

classroom_228x148.jpgAlan Johnson is planning new work-related diplomas and the expansion of apprenticeships.




The school leaving age would be increased to 18 under dramatic proposals outlined by Education Secretary Alan Johnson.

He said it was as unacceptable today to see a 16-year-old in a dead-end job as it was to see a 14-year-old employed half a century ago.

Mr Johnson's plans would see hundreds of thousands of youngsters compelled to stay in education past 16 every year. A quarter of children currently leave school at that stage.

Not all would remain in conventional schooling, with some encouraged to take up vocational training instead.

Opposition MPs and education experts warned forcing teenagers who did not want to remain in education to do so could prove counterproductive and worsen school discipline.

But the Education Secretary is understood to have the backing of Gordon Brown - the runaway favourite to become the next Prime Minister - for the first raising of the age at which children leave education since 1972. Then, it was raised from 15 to 16.

Mr Johnson, speaking at a lunch with journalists in Westminster, said: "Forty, 50, 60 years ago, seeing a 14-year-old at work was quite acceptable. Now it would be totally unacceptable.

"It should be just as unacceptable to see a 16-year-old just working and not doing anything else or receiving any training and skills."

He said an extension to 18 would be the logical conclusion of reforms begun in Rab Butler's Education Act of 1944, which brought the age up to 15.

Sources close to the Education Secretary told the Daily Mail detailed work was now being done on how the move, which would require legislation, could be implemented.

"It's something which has growing support within Government," said one. "It would not just be about the school leaving age, but the age at which children could leave education as a whole.

"So some might be at sixth form college, and some who really wanted to be in a job would have to be doing some sort of education or training at the same time. We do not want to see 16-year-olds leaving school for dead-end jobs any more."

Mr Johnson is planning new work-related diplomas and the expansion of apprenticeships. The Government has already set a target of increasing the number of teenagers in work or training till 17 to at least 90 per cent by 2015 from the current level of around 75 per cent.

But his latest plans would be targeted at growing numbers of teenage "drifters" who refuse to take jobs or stay on in education.

Official figures suggest worrying numbers 16 to 18-year-olds are dropping out and simply living on benefits. The young people are dubbed Neets - standing for "not in education, employment or training". Figures from the Education Department reveal there are now 220,000 Neets in England.

A Government study last year estimated that each Neet costs the taxpayer an average of £97,000 during their lifetime in benefit payments, crime or simply a failure to contribute anything in taxes - leaving the country facing a total future bill of £21 billion.

The figures reveal how the number of Neets rose from ten per cent of the 16 to 18-year-old population in 2004 to 11 per cent last year.

The Government has introduced Education Maintenance Allowances - payments direct to students' bank accounts if they agree to stay on at school or college.

The scheme is estimated to cost £500 million a year, but critics have claimed much of the cash is being directed at pupils who would have carried on their education anyway.

Shadow Education Secretary David Willetts said: "We do need to get more teenagers staying on. But the trouble is we already see 14- and 15-year-olds, particularly boys, sitting in the back of classrooms disengaged from learning.

"We've let them down on the basics like being properly taught to read and write, and failed to get them to realise that a few good GCSEs are so important for their opportunities in life. Just passing a law making it compulsory for them to stay on till 18 is the lazy way of solving the problem.

"It would also cost a lot of money and raise a whole set of questions about what penalties you would have for people who played truant.'

"The real challenge is to get them really engaged with worthwhile schooling or vocational training."

Alan Smithers, professor of education at Buckingham University and a Government adviser, warned the move could have serious implications for school discipline.

"As we have gradually raised the leaving age, we have found the number of children in school who simply don't want to be there has risen," he said.

"They demonstrate that by truanting or through their bad behaviour. That is an increasing factor in attracting and holding on to teachers, who find it difficult to deal with children why make it clear they don't want to be taught.

"These children may well also be damaging the experience of those who can see the benefit of staying on."

Mr Johnson said Tory politician Butler had first proposed raising the age to 18 in the 1940s.

"Butler had a vision; it's time for us now to introduce it 60 years after we should have," he said.

While the Government's new financial allowances had helped boost staying-on rates, they remained among the world's worst, he said.

Children who leave school before 16 are currently classed as truants, unless their parents come to an arrangement with their local education authority that they should be educated at home.

Since 2002, councils have been able to tell the parents of truanting pupils they have 12 weeks to start attending or face a court appearance potentially leading to £2,500 fines or three months imprisonment.

Mr Johnson said he had been impressed by recent moves in Canada to increase the leaving age to 18.

Legislators in Ontario have required children to remain in classrooms or other "approved learning programs" until then.

Matthew Knowles, of the Federation of Small Businesses, said: "The broader issue for our members is regardless of when they leave, how well are people prepared to contribute to a job when they enter employment.

"At the moment, we find a lot of students who've been encouraged to go to university for no real reason and all they have ended up with is a lot of debt.

"If this is about keeping children on to learn things that they can use when they enter the job market, we would support it. But if it's just keeping them there for an extra two years for the sake of it, it would be pointless.

"It's also important to remember that we all know stories of people who aren't academically minded have left school at 16 and gone on to become incredibly successful businessmen."

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Would never work.


""It's also important to remember that we all know stories of people who aren't academically minded have left school at 16 and gone on to become incredibly successful businessmen.""


What was it, out of the top 5 richest people in the UK, only 1 has a proper education?

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You're right! to raise the age can't be the right solution. In Germany we can leave school after ten classes with 15 and 16. And it's the same problem- unemployment or having an instruction without a taking over in the company. What a shame for the young! most of them also grow up in poverty and social circumstances which let them feel like outsiders in the society! they have no prospects. it is almost better to have school-leaving examination with distinction- more gates are open! But if you fight for success it is possible to raise from rags to riches....i believe in it!

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