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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Why Labour's dismal poll ratings won't harm Jeremy Corbyn's re-election chances

Members didn't vote for him on electoral grounds and believe his opponents would fare no better.

On the day of Theresa May's coronation as Conservative leader, a Labour MP texted me: "Can you imagine how big the Tory lead will be?!" We need imagine no more. An ICM poll yesterday gave the Tories a 16-point lead over Labour, their biggest since October 2009, while YouGov put them 12 ahead. The latter showed that 2.7 million people who voted for the opposition in 2015 believe that Theresa May would make a better prime minister than Jeremy Corbyn (she leads among all voters by 52-18).

One might expect these subterranean ratings to reduce Corbyn's chances of victory in the Labour leadership contest. But any effect is likely to be negligible. Corbyn was not elected last summer because members regarded him as best-placed to win a general election (polling showed Andy Burnham ahead on that front) but because his views aligned with theirs on austerity, immigration and foreign policy. Some explicitly stated that they regarded the next election as lost in advance and thought it better to devote themselves to the long-term task of movement building (a sentiment that current polling will only encourage). Their backing for Corbyn was not conditional on improved performance among the public. The surge in party membership from 200,000 last year to 515,000 is far more worthy of note. 

To the extent to which electoral considerations influence their judgement, Corbyn's supporters do not blame the Labour leader for his party's parlous position. He inherited an outfit that had lost two general elections, neither on a hard-left policy platform. From the start, Corbyn has been opposed by the majority of Labour MPs; the latest polls follow 81 per cent voting no confidence in him. It is this disunity, rather than Corbyn's leadership, that many members regard as the cause of the party's malady. Alongside this, data is cherry picked in order to paint a more rosy picture. It was widely claimed yesterday that Labour was polling level with the Tories until the challenge against Corbyn. In reality, the party has trailed by an average of eight points this year, only matching he Conservatives in a sole Survation survey.

But it is Labour's disunity, rather than Corbyn, that most members hold responsible. MPs contend that division is necessary to ensure the selection of a more electable figure. The problem for them is that members believe they would do little, if any, better. A YouGov poll published on 19 July found that just 8 per cent believed Smith was "likely to lead Labour to victory at the next general election", compared to 24 per cent for Corbyn.

The former shadow work and pensions secretary hopes to eradicate this gap as the campaign progresses. He has made the claim that he combines Corbyn's radicalism with superior electability his defining offer. But as Burnham's fate showed, being seen as a winner is no guarantee of success. Despite his insistence to the contrary, many fear that Smith would too willingly trade principle for power. As YouGov's Marcus Roberts told me: "One of the big reasons candidates like Tessa Jowell and Andy Burnham struggled last summer was that they put too much emphasis on winning. When you say 'winning' to the PLP they think of landslides. But when you say 'winning' to today's membership they often think it implies some kind of moral compromise." When Corbyn supporters hear the words "Labour government" many think first of the Iraq war, top-up fees and privatisation, rather than the minimum wage, tax credits and public sector investment.

It was the overwhelming desire for a break with the politics of New Labour that delivered Corbyn victory. It is the fear of its return that ensures his survival. The hitherto low-profile Smith was swiftly framed by his opponents as a Big Pharma lobbyist (he was formerly Pfizer's head of policy) and an NHS privatiser (he suggested in 2006 that firms could provide “valuable services”). His decision to make Trident renewal and patriotism dividing lines with Corbyn are unlikely to help him overcome this disadvantage (though he belatedly unveiled 20 left-wing policies this morning).

Short of Corbyn dramatically reneging on his life-long stances, it is hard to conceive of circumstances in which the current Labour selectorate would turn against him. For this reason, if you want to predict the outcome, the polls are not the place to look.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.