Friday, 12 January 2007

Quality, not quantity, is what we need in education

Ministers appear to be considering raising the compulsory school age to 18. It is hard not to sympathise with their motivation for this. Alan Johnson (one of the few Labour ministers that retains some credibility) told The Times that “It should be as unacceptable to see a 16-year- old working, with no training, no education, as it is now to see a 14-year-old… We should find it … repellent that a youngster of 16 is not getting any training.” Coming from a man who left school at 15 with no qualifications, it is hard not argue.

This raises a question I have discussed before about the need for a proper and meaningful legal definition of adulthood. At present one “comes of age” after 18 years, but may drive a car at 17, have sexual intercourse at 16, and not stand for parliament until 21. There is no logic to this. The school leaving ages are an example of this. At present children can leave school and start work. Technically, that means we have child labour – albeit not with the overtones of exploitation that that term usually carries.

Some Liberal Democrats believe that the voting age should be lowered to 16. I believe that this should only be the case if we believe that 16 and 17 year olds are mature adults capable of exercising their judgement well enough to make such a weighty decision. Whether they are or not is a discussion for another day, however. My point here is that if they are, then they are adults.

If 16 and 17 year olds are adults, it would be wrong (I might even hazard criminal) to require them to spend a further two years in education. No matter how much they would benefit from it, it would be a violation of their freedom. After all, they have the right to an education; should they ten be obliged? If they are children then we may at least have the right to take that decision for them. If not, it would be as unacceptable as conscription.

The proposal anyway raises a more obvious problem. The reason why school children are not getting satisfactory qualifications is not a lack of time – they spend 11 years in school and still a quarter of them are functionally illiterate and innumerate. It is the quality of education in those 11 years that is letting our children down, not our failure to require them (remember, they are already entitled to it if they wish) to attend school for another two years.

This proposal is bound to be expensive. While its motivation is undoubtedly high-minded, ministers would be better off concentrating on improving literacy, numeracy and qualification levels prior to children reaching 16 rather than making headline-grabbing gestures that fail to address the real problem.

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