Should 16 year olds be allowed to leave?

Mike Kielty 22 November 2007

With the Government’s recent decision to raise the school-leaving age, a modern teenager hitting ‘Sweet sixteen’ is now set to lose a freedom that their grandparents’ generation took for granted. It might seem surprising in a world where politicians win political points by lauding the notion of ‘choice’, but losing the choice to leave school at 16 promises a better choice in the future for those teenagers and for Britain.

It is a policy that has been criticized by the Tories and in the media as another symptom of the ‘nanny state’, another obstinate refusal by Labour to let individuals go their own way. Yet while most commentators advocate a laissez faire approach that implicitly suits more academically gifted or richer students, a whole generation of the most disadvantaged teenagers are being lost by our education system. It is time for action, rather than rhetoric, and the policy of educating teenagers for a further two years offers the chance of ending this sad waste of talent.

All too often, politicians have lost sight of the ability that schools and universities have to correc inequality. When the annual school exam results are published, the media tends to focus on ‘dumbing down’ at the upper end of the academic scale, while ignoring what should be the most pressing concern for all of us: the fact that nearly half of 16-year-olds fail to achieve five good passes at GCSE. This failure is an indictment of the schools that have fostered them up to this point, but as a society we gain nothing from allowing these teenagers to depart mainstream education.

In Britain today, there is a culture of low ambitions that is rooted in the class system and this needs to be tackled. Teenagers that live in poorer families with little experience of higher education are unsurprisingly tempted when the offer of cash from temporary jobs comes their way at 16, even if the long-term prospects are nowhere near as useful as more school qualifications. For every Richard Branson who leaves school at that age and becomes a millionaire, there are tens of thousands who fall into jobs that lead them nowhere individually and contribute little to society. Forcing teenagers to remain in education for an additional two years will concentrate the minds of administrators, teachers, parents, and of the teenagers themselves. Their problems must be addressed rather than swept under the carpet.

It is unacceptable that almost one in ten 16 year olds are now so-called NEETs (‘not in employment, education or training’). There is a grim irony in the acronym, for this is a condition that has very little that is neat or even remotely promising about it. They are an underclass that exists in a world of sink estates where welfare benefits, the black market and violent crime are the settled lifestyle. Every year an estimated 70,000 school-aged offenders enter the youth justice system, a figure that surely is not unrelated to the figure of 75,000 teenagers that currently leave schools every year after their GCSEs. While the Conservative spokesman Iain Duncan Smith was right to argue this week that ‘we need carrots as well as sticks’ in solving these social problems, his laudable emphasis on changes in policing and volunteer social groups still neglects the key role that schools should play in aiding these teenagers.

Denying a complete freedom of choice in every aspect of modern life is rapidly becoming an impossible position for modern governments to take, but in this case, it is a restriction that will actually allow more freedoms for individuals. It will not mean teenagers sitting behind a desk twiddling their thumbs until they turn 18. There are plenty of diplomas, ranging from engineering to IT, that can be followed even if they do not want to study academic subjects. By making school compulsory for two more years, the government is limiting teenagers only to a more worthwhile set of choices between different skills and qualifications (both vocational and academic) that will aid them in a job market that is getting more competitive by the year.

‘Education, education, education’. Tony Blair’s mantra feels a long way off in the aftermath of the government’s failure over the past decade to solve the problems at the heart of our education system. At long last, however, they have produced an exciting, progressive move. Increasing the school-leaving age will help to solve the problems caused by the disaffected teenagers who currently fail to achieve in our schools. It will make Britain’s streets safer and our communities happier, but it will also aid us as we fight to maintain our position in a globalized world. The individual futures of the children struggling in our schools will influence our collective future as a nation. Neither should be left to chance.

Mike Kielty