Raising the leaving age to 18 - symbol or substance?

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Raising the leaving age to 18 - symbol or substance?

by Mick Fletcher, Mark Corney and Geoff Stanton


The aim of this paper is to explore the implications of the recent proposal to increase the age at which young people can leave recognised education and training in England to 18. In particular, the paper explores an apparent paradox: on the one hand, if voluntary measures increase participation significantly then bringing in the systems of enforcement required for raising the statutory leaving age to 18 could be a sledgehammer to crack a nut; on the other hand, if voluntary measures fail then these systems will have to be applied to more young people than the government is anticipating. In this context, the report asks whether raising the leaving age will be:

  • a symbolic gesture to signal that the objective of increasing participation has largely succeeded, or whether it will need to be;
  • an initiative of substance in order to ensure that the objective is achieved.

The government’s approach
The government is adopting a twin track approach to boosting participation. It is seeking to manage downwards the number of 16–17 year olds not in recognised education and training, and at the same time, it plans to target interventions – year-on-year – on today’s nine and ten year olds who will be the first cohorts to be covered by raising the leaving age to 17 in 2013 and to 18 in 2015.

Over-optimism about voluntarism?
We believe the government is over-optimistic about the potential of its reform programme substantially to affect the participation rate. Reforms over the past decade have had little effect on participation and major elements of the reform programme such as the specialised diplomas and the Foundation Learning Tier are substantially untried.

Moreover early evidence about the nature of the diplomas and the Foundation Learning Tier do not give confidence that they will offer the flexibility or the vocational relevance that is needed to engage the disaffected. Neither is it clear that plans recognise the significant extra costs involved in making provision that is both more vocational and more highly tailored to individual needs.

The proposal to offer the entitlement of an apprenticeship place for any young person who wants one is bold but unattainable. An apprentice has to be employed and government cannot require employers to offer jobs. This strengthens the case for a clear vocational route within Further Education (FE) alongside and not displaced by the diplomas.

Additional measures to increase voluntary participation should be considered
There is more that the government could  and should do to make progress through voluntary means.These could include:

  • Allowing young people to take GCSEs when they are ready and not all at the same age;
  • Addressing the fact that post-16 learners on Levels 1 and 2 provision receive less funding per capita than those at Level 3;
  • Requiring every local authority to hold a central fund to cover the full cost of vocational provision delivered by FE colleges and work-based learning providers to 14–16 year olds;
  • Asking the Sub-National Review of Economic Regeneration to consider in detail the balance of advantages of local authorities funding all provision from age 11–19, since local authorities are already the strategic lead partner for the 14–19 phase, the funder of the 14–16 phase and will soon be responsible for funding the Connexions Service which has specific targets to reduce the Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET) category.

Even if the government is right in its confidence that existing measures will reach the 90% participation target, it needs to explain why the above reforms – or reforms similar to them – would not take voluntary participation so close to 100% as to make compulsion unnecessary.

On the other hand, given the possibility that it is being over-optimistic government needs to plan for compulsion mechanisms that are realistic when applied to more than the 10% of the cohort than it is currently anticipating.

Where compulsion might fail
There are several circumstances in which compulsory participation in learning could make little sense. For example a young person might achieve a Level 2 qualification within weeks of their 18th birthday. A young person might achieve a Level 2 Apprenticeship at age 17 in a firm that has no Level 3 opening for them.

Considerable flexibility will also be required when, for example, a young employee on day release loses a job but actively seeks another; or when, for example, they suffer a temporary reduction in hours.

There is a need to revisit the proposal that participation should mean full-time study for all those not in full-time work including the unemployed. Government should also recognise that jobs without training are not necessarily jobs without learning and that some young people can learn skills that employers value outside accredited programmes.

The success of any attempts at compulsion will depend on the effective operation of a large scale IT system in real time. The track record of government in relation to IT systems is not encouraging.

The government’s proposals seem seriously to underestimate the degree of ‘churn’ in the youth labour market which will make tracking young people and providing effectively for them expensive and problematic.

Regulation of the labour market
International evidence, mainly from the USA and Canada suggests that the impact of raising the leaving age by itself is relatively slight. A key reason appears to be the weakness of attempts to enforce participation and a reluctance to regulate the labour market.

While the Green Paper appears to have learned from overseas it seems to underestimate the extent to which it is necessary to impose a firm duty on employers, both to notify any changes in relation to the employment of young people and to check before giving them any offer of employment however slight or casual. The extent of churn in the youth labour market may make this burdensome.

Providers of last resort
The participation of those who are currently disengaged will require providers who are willing and able to make appropriate provision for them. There is currently no way of forcing schools or colleges to make provision; and since the participation of reluctant learners is likely to depress success rates much provision may end up with low status ‘providers of  last resort’.

The countdown to compulsion
The government is right to put curriculum reforms in place before introducing compulsion but therefore needs to ensure that those elements of the diplomas, the Foundation Learning Tier and apprenticeships designed  for 14 and 15 year olds are in place in 2011,  not 2013.

The scale of the task
The government’s view that voluntary means will take participation rates from 75% to 90% and possibly beyond is worryingly optimistic. Even additional voluntary measures might not get there. It may be that the powers of compulsion, seen as a last resort, will instead have to be applied to large numbers of uncommitted young people. Clearly, the exercise of compulsion on a large scale makes the curriculum, monitoring, enforcement challenges significantly greater. There must be doubts about whether the government of 2013 facing such circumstances would even try.

Read the report