With statistics this month having shown a rise in the number of unemployed 16 and 17-year-olds not in education, employment or training, Nansi Ellis looks at whether the government’s policy of raising the participation age is working.

Statistics this month showed that the number of unemployed 16 and 17-year-olds rose over the last three months of 2013, despite the raising of the participation age (RPA) to 17.

While it’s too early to judge the impact of RPA based on a single set of figures, it does give us an opportunity to reflect.

We have has always supported RPA, but been very clear that participation is not the same as staying at school. This is about being in education or training (including employment with training).

There are many potential benefits of raising the participation age.

Unemployment has damaging effects on individuals, the economy and society generally.

It’s not clear that colleges are yet planning for RPA, and both schools and colleges are flooded with changes to curriculum and qualificationsv

Raising the participation age should allow young people more time to pursue their learning; and to enter paid work with more workplace experience and better skills, making them of more immediate benefit to employers.

And work provides an opportunity to be valued as a useful member of society, reducing the frustration of unemployment, as well as social and financial costs of being on benefits.

For many young people represented in the unemployment figures, school hasn’t worked out for the best.

Expecting them to carry on with more of the same will lead them to disengage or drop out.

Equally, this can’t be about getting out and taking any job that’s on offer — if you can find one.

The period from 16 to 19 must focus on the transition from education to employment — even for those whose transition may include a stint in higher education.

Currently the options for this age group are extremely confusing, so the first requirement is for an effective system of information, advice and guidance to support young people to make the choices that will work for them. This has to happen before the age of 16.

We need sustained links between FE colleges, schools and employers. This should include student visits to workplaces; and employers, employees and apprentices visiting schools to talk about work (and study), to develop work related skills and to enthuse pupils about what they can do with their chosen subjects. It should also include vocational teachers regularly engaged with workplaces, to support students to link study and work; and employers working with teachers, lecturers and leaders to understand the changing requirements of workplaces and links with curriculum study.

Again, these should happen well before the age of 16, as well as during the transition period.

The trouble is that these links aren’t yet developed, and government policies aren’t always helpful to RPA. It’s not clear that colleges are yet planning for RPA, and both schools and colleges are flooded with changes to curriculum and qualifications.

Employers no longer have a legal duty to monitor RPA, which makes it easier for them to see this as someone else’s responsibility. And funding cuts will lead to many colleges cutting courses and resources.

The increased focus on English and maths qualifications, while important, may mean that students will ‘use up’ their learning hours on these two subjects and have little opportunity for equally important and quite diverse study.

And of course there have to be jobs for young people, with fair pay and reasonable contracts.

RPA is often seen as something we have to do in areas of high unemployment or to support the less academically inclined.

But transition from education to employment is vital for all young people, and a truly inclusive system encourages all young people to think vocationally.

It values high quality apprenticeships as a route to university, views a healthcare diploma in FE as the start of a learning pathway that could lead to higher professional qualifications, and sees A-levels within expanded apprenticeships as a way of re-invigorating learning for its own sake.

Unions have a role to play here too, and our successful bid for Union Learning Funding means we can continue our own partnerships with the TUC and the Association of Employers and Learning Providers to develop high quality provision of traineeships, apprenticeships and functional skills. If we support RPA, we all need to work together if we’re to reap the benefits.

Nansi Ellis, assistant general secretary for policy, Association of Teachers and Lecturers