School's not out anymore: will raising the school leaving age change anything?

The increase in the leaving age this year will be hard to deliver. The next one, due in 2015, will be damned near impossible. And what are politicians doing about it? Very little, says Jonn Elledge.

In the summer of 1972, in school playgrounds the length and breadth of the land, prefabs sprouted. After nearly a decade of ministerial dithering, the government had finally raised the school leaving age, to 16, and made parents legally liable for ensuring their kids stayed in the classroom. Those flat-pack buildings were the result: a physical manifestation of the fact that schools suddenly found themselves dealing with a lot of kids that they would previously have expected to bugger off.

Four decades later, the leaving age has risen again: as of this month, teenagers are legally required to stay in education until the academic year of their 17th birthday. In two years time, it goes up again, to 18.

This time, though, the change hasn’t been quite so conspicuous. In fact, unless you work in education, or have a 16 year old of your own to contend with, its possible you won't even have noticed (a survey reported last week showed that a quarter of parents hadn’t). To give you a sense of exactly how visible this seismic change in our education system has been, here is a brief précis of every major speech a coalition education minister has given on the topic:

There haven't been any.

To be fair, this isn't a coalition policy, but a Labour one, enacted into law back in 2008. What's more, the parallels with the class of '72 are not exact. Forty years ago, it was the school leaving age that was going up: that meant desks and exams and bits of chalk and so on. Today, it's the education participation age. That could mean A-levels, but it can also mean vocational courses, or apprenticeships, or a job with a certain amount of training.

Under this broader definition, most 16 year olds already do stay in education: at the end of 2011, just 5.5 per cent of them had left the system. (A year later, this had risen slightly, to 5.8 per cent. Great start, guys.) Nonetheless, that figure still covers several thousand kids who'd previously have left education but are now expected to remain. This, one might think, would be something ministers might want us to know about. Not a bit of it, though.

One good reason for ministers' silence might be the nature of their plans to actually make sure kids stay in education: they don’t have any.

Part of the problem is money. The Institute for Fiscal Studies said two years ago that 16-19 education spending would fall by 20 per cent over the life of this parliament. To make things tougher still, appealing to that last five per cent probably means vocational training – and the equipment required for such courses is generally more expensive than that required for, say, English A-level.

The lack of funding probably won't be that big a problem, though, because the government isn't planning to enforce the new law anyway. When Labour first introduced the plan, ministers talked about “carrots and sticks”, but seemed to be a lot more keen on the latter, in the form of £50 fines and criminal records for those who played hooky. The coalition, though, isn’t bothering with any of this. Kids who drop out of education won't face any sanctions. Nor will their parents. Nor will employers who hire them but don't offer the requisite 280 hours a year of training. The raising of the participation age is almost entirely notional.

It'd be unfair to say the government is doing nothing. It is, slowly, reforming the perplexing potpourri of vocational qualifications. It's introducing "traineeships", basic skills courses intended to get teenagers ready for full apprenticeships. These things will help at the margins – but nonetheless, the coalition's actions are not those of a government that is serious about ensuring that every teenager stays in education for another year.

And this, remember, is the easy bit. While 94 per cent of 16 year olds are in education, and 93 per cent of 17 year olds, that number drops to less than 85 per cent of 18 year olds. The increase in the leaving age this year will be hard to deliver. The next one, due in 2015, will be damned near impossible.

In the past, each time the school leaving age has increased, hysterical opponents warned that the result would be truancy, or schools chock full of kids so unwilling that classrooms would look like the set of A Clockwork Orange. Each time, those opponents were proved wrong. Perhaps, it'll be the same this time.

But perhaps, it won't. In 1972, those prefabs were also a reminder that kids didn't have to actually do anything to stay in school: all they had to do keep turning up. This time round, though, they have to navigate a dizzying array of options, and make an active decision about their future. It'd be a brave education minister who assumed inertia would be enough to make the policy a success – or, perhaps, an indifferent one.

Students in Bristol receiving their GCSE results. Photo: Getty

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder