On the surface of it, giving all young people not only the right but the obligation to stay on in education or training until 18 could be seen as the liberal educationalist’s dream.
Who, after all, isn’t in favour of continuing access to education, and of keeping young people’s horizons open?
But when you start looking at the detail behind the government’s new proposals, what strikes you is both the poverty of what is on offer, and the authoritarian agenda that underlies it.
Ten years of New Labour has done nothing to address the “long tail of underachievement” in our schools. Nor was it likely to. With every twist of the knife the introduction of privatisation and market forces have driven schools and students further apart.
Young people are finding themselves in an education system increasingly driven by testing and league tables.
Recently we have seen one set of experts after another raising the alarm about the ways in which “high stakes testing” has narrowed the curriculum in schools and led to increased stress and alienation for young people.
Is the answer more of the same? The department for children, schools and families insists it is.
Parents are already subject to fines if they fail to enforce attendance at school. The plan now is to subject 16 and 17 year olds to a kind of educational Asbo, an “attendance order”, and then fine them up to £200 if they fail to turn up to school or to a training course.
It’s rather less clear how they will pay, or indeed how attendance on courses will even be recorded. Business leaders have welcomed the move and presumably the temptation for many employers will be to use young people as cheap labour.
In further education colleges, where much of this training will take place, the questions will be how will this be funded? And what do we do with the unwilling students who have been forced in on pain of a large fine?
The proposals fit with the way in which young people have been defined as a problem in terms of anti-social behaviour and crime.
Essentially, however, it is now their failure to produce enough surplus value to allow Britain to compete in the international market, which drives the latest “reforms”.
The 200,000 16 to 18 year old Neets (not in education, employment or training) are an embarrassment to the government, particularly when compared to Scandinavian countries, where over 90 percent continue their education until the age of 18 or 19.
Unfortunately our government has not bothered to ask why so many stay on at school in these countries, and what this tells us about their education system.
The effect of its measures will be to further alienate and criminalise young people. As John Stone of the Independent Learning and Skills Network pointed out, young people can have sex, marry and join the army.
Why then force them into education or training they reject? Many parents, he points out, believe it will be impossible to force students to learn.
It is an indictment of the education system that so many young people don’t feel it offers them anything.
Steve Sinnott, the general secretary of the NUT teachers’ union, has stated, “Criminalising young people is no way to ensure committed involvement. It will only serve to alienate and undermine any desire disaffected young people may feel towards continuing their education.
“What is needed is for the government to talk to teachers’, employers’ organisations and to young people’s groups about the sort of provision that should and can be available.”
He could have added that the government should also consider how to support young people financially to allow them to stay on in education.
Instead it is proposing to abolish educational maintenance allowances, which are worth between £10 to £30 a week for 16 to18 year olds from low income families who agree to stay in education.
They are currently claimed by around 400,000 young people. It’s unclear what new financial incentives will be offered instead.
Everyone in society, whatever their age, should be encouraged to choose to continue their education up to 18 and beyond, whether through the kind of courses that used to be available in adult education, or with good quality voluntary training.
This would necessarily involve proper financial support, including the restoration of proper student grants.
It shouldn’t involve coercing and criminalising young people, but convincing them that continuing their education would be both engaging and worthwhile. The tragedy is that so many young people leave school feeling the opposite.
Jane Bassett teaches in Hackney in east London, and is president of Hackney NUT. She writes in a personal capacity