Opinion: Compulsory education misses the point


Government plans to make education or training compulsory up to the age of 18 revive the spectre that haunted the Raising Of School Leaving Age Act 35 years ago, when compulsory schooling was extended from age 15 to 16. Then there was the imperative, in principle, that young people needed to be better qualified for the labour market. But there was also the reality that it became a holding exercise for many who did not want to be there. Many of these had, of course, just left of their own accord.

I see little that is connected or logical in the education debate. It needs to be pitched around learning, not education or schooling. Tom Bentley, former director of Demos and David Blunkett's ex-special adviser on education, has written that learning may take place increasingly "beyond the classroom'" - new technologies mean it is no longer constrained by bricks and mortar.

The issues are essentially twofold: the 'width' of learning (in school, in the workplace, in the community) and the 'length' of learning (the age range). These have been captured as ideas about life-wide and lifelong learning. But there is the crucial question: what for? Too many young people are buckling down to achieving formal academic qualifications and then discovering that it does not lead to jobs commensurate with that achievement. But without them, they are heading nowhere.

We should support and encourage opportunities for learning. We should also have mechanisms that respond speedily to those who are motivated to engage in learning. But any sense of trying to secure compulsory involvement in education up to the age of 18 needs careful reflection. Youth research consistently reports that post-compulsory educational participation is as much about uncertainties in the labour market as it is about some new culture of commitment to learning. Significant proportions of young people are already staying in education as a kind of holding position; we should not be forcing them there.

The sensible position is not to forget the Tomlinson report - the idea of a package of 14-19 learning pathways. The Welsh Assembly Government, to its credit, is still moving in this direction: a broad highway for learning, not a gridlocked car park.

Howard Williamson is professor of European youth policy at the University of Glamorgan, and a member of the Youth Justice Board. Email howard.williamson@haymarket.com.

CYP Now Digital membership

  • Policy and research analysis
  • Evidence-based case studies
  • Leadership advice
  • Legal updates
  • Local area spotlights

From £170 /year

Subscribe

CYP Now Magazine

  • Policy and research analysis
  • Evidence-based case studies
  • Leadership advice and interviews
  • Legal updates

From £136 /year

Subscribe