Young teenagers face an extended period in education with the raising of the participation age. It’s a grand idea, but it might not be the wisest, says Anthony Benton.

August saw a big change in the statutory education system, the “participation age” rose from 16 to 17.

Young people must now remain in full-time education or approved training and continue to study English and maths (GCSEs if in school or GCSEs/Functional Skills if in training).

In essence, you could think this is a good idea, but is it? Some nations keep young people in education and training longer and some of these have better outcomes, but is it really tackling the real challenges we face as a nation?

As with many government initiatives raising the participation age (RPA) is a blunt instrument — it has side effects and unwanted consequences.

One justification for RPA is that too many young people leave education without the level of basic skills that employers say they want.

We have created a cultural situation where many learners are uninterested in these basic skills”

Cynically, a more basic underlying reason could be to slow the increase of so-called NEETs (young people not in education, employment or training) currently running at around a million.

When the government talks about adequate English and maths, of course they mean a grade C or above in GCSE, a so-called gold standard. Successive governments have fed confusion in this area by periodically introducing new qualifications and messing around with exams year-on-year for generations.

I would argue that many people in education, politics and the media are obsessed by GCSEs.

After all, these things that we don’t really understand are what schools are judged on more than anything else. And that obsession and the coarse use of GCSE exam results as the success measure of a school means that many other facets are pushed into the margins.

So, one of the stated objectives of the increase in participation age is to improve the levels of English and maths before young people move into employment.

A laudable ambition, but what about the question of why so many get to the end of years of intensive full-time education without being able to get above a grade D in their GCSE exams?

Hoping to make up for that failure through RPA is too little too late.

It is the wrong answer to the wrong question and to make matters worse by the time most young people get to this “failed stage” they probably hate maths and loath English, probably having sat their GCSE exams several times and being convinced by the establishment that they are thick.

Tragically, we are seeing also that some secondary schools are refusing to take back pupils who have done badly in GCSE results, reducing participation opportunity and reinforcing that sense of failure in the classic establishment academic route.

We need a nationally-recognised qualification system, but it needs to be two things to be successful. It must run seamlessly across all levels without ambiguity and be constant over time.

And although these qualifications can then be a marker for schools, pupils and teachers, they must not be allowed to exclude or dominate other markers, for example employment success rates and broader school culture-driven outcomes such as behaviour, values and attitude.

It is clear the biggest issue is the failure in learning of English and maths during school years. We have created a cultural situation where many learners are uninterested in these basic skills. This is what we have to address rather than just add on another year.

You can lead a horse to water, but if it isn’t thirsty, it won’t participate.


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  1. I think the whole country is obsessed with GCSEs and A levels. Or more accurately, the “middle class” – if there is such a thing, but it’s the nearest I can get to explain it – is obsessed. If one more person grills our son (or me) on how he did, I will have to start going round to their houses and ask how big their mortgage, how much they earned last year. None of this actually interests me. But it’s to make a point. Is it the only way people can evaluate a child? Is it genuine interest and I’m being over touchy? Somehow, I think not. Sadly I think it’s a lot about one-upmanship, and personal insecurity. Having tried to make a stand against this whole bragomony I’ve been called everything from self-righteous to commendable. Take your pick. Quite frankly I’m not bothered. Just respect our family’s wish to keep our achievements, financial, social, sexual, academic to ourselves and those we love and who truly love and care about us.