School until the age of 18 – a restriction of civil liberties or a blessing in disguise?

Being a student is a privilege – enjoy it while it lasts.  In the presence of friends who have already flown the University nest, it is impossible not to feel ever so slightly smug about the sheer amount of time at my disposal (though admittedly it is usually spent in front of a television), or the ability to go out two nights in a row without falling asleep at the bar.  With just months left of my undergraduate career I’m putting off growing up for as long as possible – I’m sure the feeling’s mutual amongst much of the student body. With that in mind, the choice that we made aged 16, to remain in higher education, was relatively simple: not only would we get a ticket to the University party, but we would gain qualifications to access skilled and in many instances more highly paid work. 


However, when the Department for Education and Skills announced in 2007 that the school leaving age would be raised to 17 in 2013 and eventually to 18 in 2015, not everyone was pleased. While we may be satisfied with what the world of academia has to offer, for some it is a source of tedium and disinterest and leaving school at 16 is the only appealing pathway. There will therefore inevitably be opposition to the new law as it may initially seem restricting. There are, of course, thousands of young people who will welcome the reform as a chance to improve their earning potential, and relieve the pressure to start earning. Thus we must ask whether it is right to impose two further years of education on young people, even if it is in an attempt to improve their life experience. Or is this new legislation a restriction of civil liberties by MPs who think they know what is best for the youth of today?


Firstly, it must be acknowledged that staying at school until age 18 does not mean that all 16 year olds will be confined to the classroom and forced to pursue academic study – there is considerable scope for choice. Various vocational courses will be offered on both a part-time and full-time basis, including Engineering, Health and Social Care and Hair and Beauty, alongside A-Levels. The 14-19 Reform Agenda outlines its plan simply, and enthusiastically:


·         GCSEs and A-Levels will continue.

·    The Diploma qualification will be fully established, introducing a new range of subjects which combine practical and theoretical learning.

·    There will be another route at 16 entitled Employment with Accredited Training, ensuring school leavers continue to learn and keep progression routes open.

·    Once fully implemented, young people will be able to choose or change paths at the end of key stage 3 (aged 14), and at 16, 17 and 18. For example, at 16 they can choose from the options of a higher/ advanced diploma, GCSE/ A level, Foundation Learning Tier, Apprenticeship or Employment with training.


The key issue here, therefore, is about choice. Today, many of us are overwhelmed by choice. We have had to choose from as young as 13 which subjects we want to study, then whether to stay at school/ college, whether to have a gap year, which university, which course, which subsidiaries to do (with the option of archaeology to plant science, even if you are studying English) and finally which career path to follow. Maybe the decision to legally bind students to education or training until the age of 18 is a good thing because it removes a little bit of choice whilst pushing pupils towards bettering themselves. Having grown up with parents and grandparents within the teaching profession, I have heard both the positives and negatives of the education system; but overall if children are given encouragement, support and individual attention whenever possible, they can only but benefit from being in school. We all know how daunting the idea of fending for oneself in the current turbulent job market is going to be, so perhaps the new law is actually a blessing in disguise keeping young people from working until they have enough skills and qualifications to secure the jobs they really do want to do.


However, critics of the new system have suggested that this increased choice of subjects and methods of delivery is no substitute for the freedom and decision making power that we enjoyed at age 16 and removing this freedom will simply create resistance. Given that truancy is already widespread problem in Britain, it is argued that this would simply be exacerbated by extending compulsory schooling.  The costs of monitoring this behaviour must also be taken into account, especially as parents can now be imprisoned if students fail to attend classes. Perhaps therefore, it would be simpler and more cost-effective to allow those unsuited to the learning environment to forge their paths under their own steam rather than diverting resources to convince the apathetic. We all raise an eyebrow to so-called ‘Mickey Mouse’ subjects, such as Surf and Beach Management formerly taught at Swansea University, but at least then money for tuition fees was coming from the students themselves. Funds for state education must be used responsibly; if students have to stay in education, then it must be as significant as A-Levels in providing options for their future.


Historically, the school leaving age has only ever been increased; our grandparents were able to leave school at 13, our parents 15, and us 16. So extending the compulsory schooling period seems a logical progression. The gradual increase in the school leaving age represents a greater sensitivity towards the needs of children and in a society in which our young people are growing up too fast, would it be such a bad thing to prevent premature entry into the more serious and dangerous adult world? Of course, leaving school at 16 does not definitely entail an automatic slip into the criminal underworld, although at this age you can join the army, which is undoubtedly pretty dangerous. But it seems consistent overall; at 16 we can’t do much legally – drinking, smoking, marriage, voting and driving are all no-no’s so in reality there’s not much freedom left to remove anyway.


Though objections will still persist, hopefully the changes in the system will be communicated in such a way that students will recognize the value of the extra years at school. Studies conducted in Canada show that staying on in school for an extra year could increase income by up to 12%, and up to 15% for women in particular.  The increased gratification from a higher wage packet can positively influence attitudes and behaviour. So while higher-earning power doesn’t equal happiness, it can certainly equal greater self-esteem.                 


In the long term, it is not only the individual’s bank balance that may be affected. In 2007 a substantial 11% of 16 to 18 year olds were not attending work, school or training programmes, representing a significant source of untapped potential that could prove economically vital for the country. It’s no secret that a serious skills shortage has emerged in the UK. Recent statistics show that 15% of adults in the UK are functionally illiterate while 21% are functionally innumerate. With employers reluctant to train employees, British industry is left producing for lower end markets, rather than innovative, higher tech and in many cases higher value markets. In the face of increased competition from developing economies, the UK must find a leading edge. But such a strategy requires a flexible and capable workforce and if employers cannot be relied upon to provide training, where better to provide the necessary professional grounding than the education system? 


The new law will affect students currently in year 8; with a bit of luck, by the time they are 16 they will be convinced of the benefits that two extra years in education can offer. Not only are they able to enjoy the relaxed student lifestyle for longer, but they should become more prosperous than previously possible while the country benefits in the process. What is more, an additional two years in a ‘learning environment’ seems minimal in the grand scheme of things. When we are forty, another two years in school from the ages of 16-18 will seem like ancient history, and will undoubtedly have given us the ability to better our situation in life until we need to retire. After all, the shelter of the education system may actually be the safest place in which to weather this current storm, and when all is said and done, a little bit more knowledge will never be a bad thing, so long as it is administered appropriately for each individual student after the age of 16.

Clare Hutchison and Emily Winsor


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