Should the school leaving age be lowered to 14?

Francis Gilbert's picture
Having raised the school leaving age to 18, it should come as no surprise that some very powerful people with the ear of government are keen to lower the school leaving age to 14. Lord Digby Jones is at the forefront of this drive. I appeared with him on Radio London today on the Robert Elms Show where he explained that the chronically failing education system meant that many children would be far better off with work placements from 14 years of age rather than taking their GCSEs. He said that pupils should be able to opt out of school and should be inducted into apprenticeships with suitable businesses for three or four days a week, while attending college for the remaining time. His claim was that many pupils were learning nothing in school and would learn more learning a trade. He incorrectly said that over half of pupils were failing to get a C grade or more in GCSE English and Maths. The correct figure are: 41% of pupils did not achieve a C grade in maths and 35% did not achieve this benchmark in English. In other words 65% of pupils do achieve a C grade in English; there are substantially more "literate" pupils than he claims according to this measure.

I argued that the picture that he painted of our schools failing so many children was false and that the vast majority of pupils did well out of the current system and that we should work on improving existing provision rather than casting out millions of children into the world of work when they're simply not ready. There is a very strong link between social deprivation and educational under-achievement; there's absolutely no reason why Digby Jones's ideas will improve this situation. We'd be far better off spreading good practice; working getting the best schools to collaborate with ones that are struggling so that all our pupils raise their achievements. Schools like Mossbourne Academy and Bethnal Green Technology College (BGTC) have shown that you can educate our poorest children to the highest of standards. This year at BGTC eight out of ten pupils got 5 A*-C grades at GCSE, including English and Maths, with over half of them being on Free School Meals. Both these schools have well developed vocational pathways for under-achieving students but they also make their pupils take the standard GCSEs as well; there's lessons to learn from them.

Digby Jones's ideas are based on the Austrian model and more generally the Germanic model of having a "dual education" system, with parity between between vocational and academic education. The vocational system in Austria has become very fashionable amongst right-wing circles in recent months, especially since the summer's riots. I attended a talk about the system at the Austrian embassy this Thursday where a number of Austrian education gurus spoke of the wonders of their system where nearly half of 14 year-olds leave school and serve as apprentices. I noticed a few policy wonks from various right-wing think-tanks in attendance too. There are over 250 types of apprenticeships in Austria; detailed careers advice is given to the young people and together with their parents they sign a contract with the relevant business or trade which effectively "indentures" them with their business for the next few years. Training is provided for the employers and the system is monitored tightly by central government. The apprentice system appears to work there, with youth unemployment running at just 7%, far lower than the rampant rates of unemployment we have in this country.

So why don't we imitate it?

There are some good reasons why I feel the Austrian system will not work here. Firstly, size and demographics. Austrian has a population of 8m, with fewer than a million pupils at school; we have a school population which is bigger than the entire country. Austria is a very wealthy country with relatively small differences in wealth between the rich and poor; there is virtually no immigration there. If every family in England had the average wealth of an Austrian family there is a good reason to believe that we wouldn't have so much educational under-achievement; time and again, the statistics show a very strong correlation between wealth and educational achievement and employment chances.

Secondly and following on from this point, imagine the nightmare of the families of the apprentices signing detailed and complicated contracts with the prospective employers; in Austria, where there are relatively few problem families, it's not a problem, but can you imagine some of our parents being involved with this process or knowing much about how to do this? Can you imagine central government supervising millions of children in thousands of different trades and ensuring there was quality across the board? Logistically, it would be a complete disaster here.

Thirdly, I believe the Austrian system is going to run into big trouble soon because the nature of the workforce is changing so rapidly; it's already struggling to keep up with the changes in technology that are going on. Austria, which earns most of its money from exports, has benefited greatly from the Euro, being able to sell its goods relatively cheaply in Europe. That soon, given the crisis with the Euro, is going to change; many businesses may go bankrupt. What happens to their vocational training then?
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Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 08/10/2011 - 13:39

Austria was one of the worst performing OECD countries in the 2009 PISA tests. Austrian 15-year-olds were significantly below the OECD average in Reading and Science, although they were at the OECD average in Maths. Austria is moving away from early specialisation towards a more comprehensive education as these quotes from OECD show:

"Austria’s growth performance hinges inter alia on the quality of its education system. While it has long successfully equipped the labour force with very good vocational skills, it now faces the major challenge of providing youth with the new, higher and more generic skills called for by technological change, international competition and aspirations for a more equitable distribution of human capital. As in many other countries, the education system faces difficulties in responding to these challenges... A major reform was launched in compulsory education in 2007, to overcome the excessively early streaming of students into "academic" and "general" tracks by promoting a new breed of "comprehensive schools"."

So at a time when other countries are moving away from early specialisation, England is promoting policies (UTCs, Studio Schools, Digby Jones's idea) which will encourage specialisation at 14, while at the same time perversely describing vocational courses as "Mickey Mouse".,3746,en_2649_34569_43155411_1_1_1_1,00...

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 08/10/2011 - 13:52

Digby Jones should be aware that initiatives whereby 14-year-olds can spend part of their time in college, at school and on work experience already exist. There is no need for a nationwide scheme.

There is also no need for pupils on these schemes to be paid - that idea could bring problems. For instance, if pupils are paid then employers might expect to receive a greater return for their money ie hours spent on the job rather than in training. This could, in turn, result in some employers taking on school-age apprentices at a cheaper rate than apprentices past the school-leaving age. And would child benefit continue to be paid for school-age apprentices receiving a wage? Would a child be able to opt out of the apprenticeship and return to school? If so, what difficulties would this cause to both the child and the school? What if a workplace decides a child is too difficult to handle? As Mr Drew says on "Educating Essex" - pupils will never meet anyone in their lives who are as patient as their teachers. And it is with teachers, not employers, that 14-year-olds belong.

Education is more than preparing people for employment, important though it is. It is also about the personal development of the individual and his/her enrichment.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 08/10/2011 - 15:16

OECD research found that postponing vocational streaming improved educational results in Poland:

“an OECD (2010b) analysis shows that Poland’s significant improvement is mainly
due to delaying vocational education tracking by one year.” (page 29 "Teaching Reading in Europe" 2011)

I think it would be unwise to place pupils into vocational streams at an early age when research shows that educational achievement is enhanced when tracking is delayed.

JimC's picture
Sat, 08/10/2011 - 16:12

A few things;

Firstly if Austria is putting nearly half their fifteen year olds through apprenticeships instead of normal schooling why should anyone be surprised that they are below the OECD average in Reading and Science? If we measured children using an outcome that actually reflects the purpose of what Austria is doing we might see a very different picture.

Secondly if you are so worried about the PISA tests in reading and science why are you criticising Micheal Gove who seems to be value reading and science over the other LSN favourites thinking skills and creativity? Let me guess you think that by teaching thinking skills and creativity children get better at science?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 11/10/2011 - 12:27

I've taken various form groups through years 10 and 11. At the age of 14 these social cohorts are often not pleasant places to be. A lot of the students are simply still very young and have a lot of growing up to do. All staff work away at these issues and it it is wonderful to see the way the students grow up during this stage of their lives, gradually developing a mature and supportive social group from which they will decide their futures.

Most schools offer multiple routes through education post 14 including college routes. In my opinion an apprentice system should be structured in a similar way. The students is still at school but has part time release to do an apprenticeship. This is unlikely to have mass appeal as it would be unpaid (if it was paid students for which it was not the best option would be tempted) but it may be appropriate for some.

JimC's picture
Sun, 16/10/2011 - 13:03

"Education is more than preparing people for employment, important though it is. It is also about the personal development of the individual and his/her enrichment."

Says you. I can accept that children can develop personally and be enriched by education but the moment we make these things the main goals of education we begin to run into trouble.

Azalea's picture
Mon, 15/09/2014 - 09:30

One possibility for unemployment could be because there is not enough life skills training at schools. I know many schools already offer vocational, practical subjects such as DT but this needs to be enforced through Years 7-9 in private and grammar schools as well as comprehensives. Just because a student is very academically able does not mean he or she will not need vocational skills. Parents must make sure students do well in practical subjects (e.g. PE (this is essential and must be taken seriously in all school years), Art & Design, Music, Drama, Design & Technology....) as well as academic subjects so that when by the time students start their GCSEs, they have already mastered the basics in all subjects. This will also prevent youth not knowing how to cook or sew, which in turn saves expenses and ensures they lead a healthy lifestyle. It is also vital that students are taught about world issues and how the world works.

Even if 14 year olds do not know what career they wish to follow (I would speculate that most of them have a vague idea at most), having a job such as gardening, babysitting, tutoring or selling pastry can be very beneficial. A job requires teenagers to be responsible, organised, mature, practical, and sensible - all of which are useful for their future. It is also vital that they are kind, particularly in jobs such as babysitting and tutoring. Besides teaching these qualities, a job can also teach teenagers to use their time wisely, handle money responsibility, and the importance of balance. Ideally students would use part of their money on helping their family and helping the needy. In addition, young people may begin to have a better idea of what career path they wish to pursue. If they wish to go to college, having a job could be in their favour as colleges may see that they are able to balance their time well.

That being said, I do not think the school leaving age should be lowered to fourteen. 14 year olds are still quite young, and are going through a huge jump in their life - from early to mid adolescence and from KS3 to KS4. Most 14 year olds will also be starting their GCSEs in Year 10. If the school leaving age is lowered, then it would mean the majority of students who leave at 14 would not have a chance to complete their GCSEs, which so many employers look for nowadays. There is of course the argument that some who are less academically able will find it an enormous challenge to attain a grade C, which is usually the minimum grade that employers look for. However these students are probably in the minority, and for these students I would suggest mastering the basics of literacy and numeracy while doing other more vocationally-oriented qualifications, if possible. There is also a difference between not achieving a grade C because of lack of academic ability and not achieving a grade C because of lack of motivation. Teachers need to engage the students and know what they need to be teaching. They must also know what the strengths of the overall class as well as the individual students are and what they need to improve on. Their interests must be of their students', not their own. That way, every student will find the classroom a safe place to learn.

It is not a foolish idea to let a minority of Year 10 & 11s to leave school and take on apprenticeships, though it is controversial. But if this to happen, the workplace needs to change, as well as the curriculum.

chloe mason's picture
Thu, 12/03/2015 - 10:04

i think children should leave school at 14

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