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 is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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Who is in Jeremy Corbyn's new shadow cabinet?

Folllowing the resignation of over a dozen MPs, Jeremy Corbyn has begun appointing a new front bench.

Following an attempted coup over the weekend, Jeremy Corbyn has begun forming his new shadow cabinet, appointing MPs to replace the numerous front bench resignations that have taken place over the last 24 hours.

The cabinet is notable for containing a relatively large proportion of MPs from the 2015 intake, many of whom were also among the 36 MPs who nominated Corbyn as a leadership candidate last year. 

Emily Thornberry

Shadow Foreign Secretary

Thornberry, a former human rights barrister, served under Ed Miliband as shadow attorney general until she resigned in 2014 following a “snobbish” tweet about an England flag sent on the day of the Rochester by-election. The MP for Islington South since 2005, she returned to the shadow cabinet in 2010 as Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow employment minister, and then helped him out of a difficult position by accepting the position of shadow defence secretary in the January 2016 reshuffle after a spat between her predecessor, Angela Eagle, and Ken Livingstone.

Diane Abbott

Shadow Health Secretary

Diane Abbott, known for her forthright interventions on a wide variety of subjects as well as her zany appearances on the This Week sofa with Michael Portillo, has held a health brief before – she was shadow minister for public health under Ed Miliband (although she was sacked in 2013, saying “Ed wanted more message discipline”). A long-time ally of Corbyn’s – they had a brief relationship in the 1970s – she nominated him for the leadership and accepted the post of shadow international development secretary upon his victory in September 2015.

Pat Glass

Shadow Education Secretary

Pat Glass, a former Labour councillor in the north-east, was elected to parliament for North West Durham in 2010. She was initially appointed shadow education minister in September 2015 when Jeremy Corbyn first formed his shadow cabinet, and was then reshuffled to shadow Europe in January 2016. She now returns to her old brief.

Andy McDonald

Shadow Transport Secretary 

McDonald entered parliament in 2012 after the by-election following Stuart Bell’s death. He served Emily Thornbery as PPS from 2013, and then joined the shadow cabinet in January 2016 to replace Jonathan Reynolds as shadow minister for rail (Reynolds resigned in protest after Corbyn sacked Pat McFadden).

Clive Lewis

Shadow Defence Secretary

Clive Lewis is part of the 2015 intake, and has been a vocal supporter of Jeremy Corbyn. He was appointed shadow energy minister in September 2015, and has been staunch in his opposition to Trident renewal. He has military experience, having done a three-month combat tour of Afghanistan in 2009.

Rebecca Long-Bailey

Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

Rebecca Long-Bailey is MP for Salford and Eccles elected in 2015. She previously worked as a solicitor, and was given the backing of Unite and Salford’s elected mayor Ian Stewart when she decided to run for parliament.

Long-Bailey was one of the MPs who nominated Corbyn for the leadership in 2015. After winning the leadership, Corbyn used her to replace Hilary Benn on Labour’s NEC.

Kate Osamor

Shadow International Development Secretary

Kate Osamor is the MP for Edmonton, also elected in 2015. She is Labour Co-operative politician, and was previously a GP practice manager.

Osamor also nominated Corbyn for leader. In January, she was made Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities.

Read a profile with Osamor from last year.

Rachael Maskell

Shadow Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary

Rachael Maskell is the MP for York Central, elected in 2015. Before becoming an MP, she was a care-worker and physiotherapist in the NHS. She is committed to improving mental health services and has served on the Health Select Committee since July.

Until recently, she worked on the Shadow Defence Team under Maria Eagle.

Cat Smith

Shadow Voter Engagement and Youth Affairs

Cat Smith has been the MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood since 2015. Prfeviously Shadow Minister for Women, Smith worked for Corbyn before entering parliament, and was one of the 36 MPs to nominate him for the leadership in 2016.

Lancashire Constabulary are currently investigating allegations that Smith breached spending limits on election campaigning.

Dave Anderson

Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary

Dave Anderson has been the MP for Blaydon since 2005. He worked as a miner until 1989 and then subsequently as a care worker, during which time he was also an activist in UNISON.

He has been a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee since 2005, with a longstanding interest in the Peace Process. In early 2015, Anderson was one of the signatories of an open letter to then leader Ed Miliband calling on Labour to oppose authority and renationalise the railways.