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My mother left school at 14 in the 1930s; I was at school in the 1960s with children who left at 15. My teaching career began in south London in the early 1970s co-inciding with ROSLA: the raising of the school leaving age to 16.
It will be 2015 before the long march to compulsory education and training up to 18 is complete, unless we are overwhelmed by a depression with a capital D, and we find last year’s legislation becomes next year’s law.
History suggests that with the passing of time, the extraordinary becomes the commonplace. The 14 year-old in 1936 deciding not to follow his father onto the land but to pursue a career in the law was unusual. That 14 year-old today may well expect to be part of the country's 45% of 18 year-olds entering higher education, perhaps the first in his family to attend university.
That which once may have been unthinkable passes today almost as the norm.
Tellingly, amongst education and business leaders there has been a quiet acceptance that compulsory education and training to age 18 are now inevitable given 21st century globalization, and an ever-modernising workforce. Today we do not even know the job titles of a quarter of all jobs which will exist in 20 years time.
The building blocks for a successful march to 2015 are in place. Yet there are some crucial hearts and minds to win over.
First, there is an important job to be done with young people themselves. If all are to be motivated to make the best of their late teenage years, then they have to be persuaded that further learning will not only be engaging in its own right, but that it will have an eventual financial pay-off.
Young people in a capitalist economy are motivated by the weekly pay-cheque; the system will need to explore thoughtfully how deferred gratification can be promoted.
The so-called NEETs (Not in Employment, Education or Training) who currently make up a challenging minority of the 16 to 19 age range will require carefully bespoke courses and incentives to complete those courses. In essence, 16 to 19 education will need to move from being perceived as provider-led to consumer-led.
Second, the academic-vocational apartheid that has bedevilled the English education system for generations must be broken up. The government has confirmed that top marks in the new Advanced diploma for 14 to 19 year-olds will be worth more than three A levels. The Schools Secretary Ed Balls talks of 'letting the market decide between qualifications' and of Diplomas becoming the 'jewel in the crown of education', making the A level redundant.
Yet no matter how hard state schools and colleges promote the Diplomas it will be the influence of the independent sector, the grammar schools, the top comprehensives and the universities which will be decisive.
The very difficult prize to be secured by 2015 is to achieve parity of esteem in students' and parents' minds between A levels, Diplomas and the expanding International Baccalaureat. Thus far, that prize has eluded us.
Thirdly, the cocktail of education and training experienced by all our youngsters from age 14 must be re-examined. There is insufficient clarity about what is vocational education and what is vocational training: the former teaches about work, the latter is very much focused on preparing for a particular trade, profession or vocation. Schools are better at the former; further education colleges are infinitely better at the latter.
And what of the crucial missing link, the employers? Since the advent of the Technical & Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI) in the mid-1980s, the education system has struggled to engage employers in the numbers needed.
Policy makers must hasten to introduce attractive tax and other incentives for businesses and the burgeoning voluntary sector to take on greater numbers of students for new models of work experience and, at the same time, revitalise the whole system of apprenticeships.
Sceptics will continue to avow that raising the school leaving age to 18 is an error, the vanity of a political elite that, at every opportunity, espouses the belief that 'we want all young people to enjoy happy, healthy, and safe teenage years and to be prepared for adult life'.
Viewed optimistically, that aspiration is a perfectly proper one for our times. It should be presented in terms of 'entitlement' not 'compulsion'. If we seek to challenge a few orthodoxies, it is a goal that can be achieved.
NEETs will then pass into the pages of history.
Click to see the NEET presentations by Nick Donlevy, Steve Rutland, Professor Jocey Quinn, Julie Skipp and John Keelty
Roy Blatchford is Director of the National Education Trust
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