Wasted Youth

It was with sheer mystified disappointment that I recently received the news that school leaving age is being raised this year to 17 and in 2015 to 18 (I know, I should have been listening when it was announced in 2007- but I was 2 years from motherhood at that point so looking the other way I guess). Whilst I imagine that individual outcomes may be improved I cannot believe that the majority of the 23% who don’t pursue education or training after leaving school at 16 will really benefit from having to stay on an extra year- or two. In fact, in my opinion, the ultimate goals- of decreasing unemployment, crime and delinquent behaviour- would be greater addressed by raising the school STARTING age and integrating flexibility.

In Europe school starting age ranges from 4 (in Northern Ireland) to 8 (in 7 countries). In Hungary the starting age is 7 but with with a years discretion so parents and early years teachers can choose not to send children not believed ready until 8. In England education was made compulsary from age 5 during the Victorian era in response to the need for child protection and social conditioning- as well as pressure from employers who wanted children available for work as soon as possible (age 10 at that point). Unfortunately earlier starting ages have not proven to raise attainment levels but, counter-intuitively perhaps, children elsewhere in Europe where curriculums adhere to the idea of the first stage of a childs development lasting until 6 (as prescribed both by Steiner and Montessori) so compulsary education not starting until after that actually achieving better qualifications long term.

Between 2006-12 Professor Robin Alexander of Cambridge University’s Faculty of Education led The Cambridge Primary Review enquiry into primary education. He advised caution about reducing these linked issues: structures of schooling (including the transition from early years foundation to Key Stage 1), assessment practices and continued professional development for teachers; to a debate purely about school starting age but nevertheless suggested that the age should be raised to six. In addition to this he initiated a report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies comparing outcomes for September (oldest in school) and August born (youngest) children. It was found that, despite August born children typically having a “richer home-learning environment” as parents try to compensate for their disadvantages, September children outperform August children in exams. August children are 20% less likely to attend a high status university at age 19, and they “have lower confidence in their academic ability and are less likely to believe that they control their own destiny as teenagers”- all of which are associated with “being in work and having higher wages” in later life. In addition to this August born children exhibit less socio-emotional development and are more likely to report “being always unhappy” and “bullied all the time” in school at age 7. It seems clear to me that were the children (born in August or otherwise!) not deemed ‘ready’ by their parents and carers held back to join as the eldest of ‘next years’ intake they would benefit enormously, potentially for the rest of their lives.

This year (at a cost of £7.4 billion) 52,000 more students will stay on in education past age 16. History indicates that people are likely to accept this, with raises in school age in 1947 and 1970 not leading to any increase in the overall truancy rate (as many predicted then and as Parliament is concentrating on now, believing that to be their greatest challenge). However many sources claim that communication of the options available to students (education, apprenticeship or work plus full time study all acceptable) is greatly lacking leading to the likelihood that some students will be unable to access the most suitable choice for themselves- especially those who would otherwise have found themselves not in training, education or work through a lack of direction, those that this bill is aimed at helping. It is yet another change of policy in several decades of the only constant in the vocational curriculum being complete reorganisation every few years and will lead to frustration for pupils and teachers and mystification for employers when trying to compare candidates for jobs with incomparable educational histories.

Sir Chris Woodhead, former chief inspector of English schools, has waded into the debate by calling for the leaving age to be reduced to 14 (as in Finland where students attain remarkably high levels of education) claiming that some are unsuited to academic study and suggesting a path that might include more apprenticeships and “practical hands-on, craft-based training that takes them through to a job”. This model can be seen in action in Germany where young people receive some kind of training or education compulsorily until age 18 but businesses and educational establishments have much closer ties, which by all accounts is a very successful practice all round.

England and Wales was one of the last areas in Europe to adopt a compulsary system of education (with the Elementary Act of 1870) and that tradition has been continued ever since of being least progressive in our education policies- and, unfortunately, really very deficient particularly when our relative wealth is taken into account. It is a fallacy to assume that more time in school equals a better quality education. We need to rethink our system completely, especially at the very beginning and very end of our children’s school careers.


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