Radical reform is needed to the British education system; lowering the school-leaving age should be just the start of it

At the beginning of this year, the TPA’s John O’Connell highlighted the ‘sacred cows’ that Boris Johnson’s government need to slaughter to cut wasteful public spending. One of these sacred cows is the ridiculous requirement for young people to stay in education until the age of 18. Until 2015, children were required to stay in school until the age to 16, this not only gave them the freedom to choose their future but also ample opportunity to get onto the job ladder.

Since the Education and Skills Act 2008, there has been little debate in Westminster about reverting the school leaving age to 16. Nevertheless, the current system damages job opportunities for those looking to get into competitive workplaces. In fact, research by universities in Westminster and Bath in 2016 found that an increase in the school leaving age cost students, particularly those who intended to leave school at the earlier age and did not have a great interest in conventional education, up to £45,000 over their working lifetime.

This is because many of the qualifications acquired over the additional years are not crucial to the career that individuals wish to pursue, and in other cases, where individuals would prefer to enter the workplace, patience in education is wearing thin. I left school almost two years ago, and while many people thoroughly enjoy school, myself included, others drag their feet and are at times disruptive. Forcing them to stay in education until they are 18 removes the potential for them to flourish in a workplace environment and prolongs their perceived agony of school. Professor Alison Wolf told the government that these students were staying in education just to study ‘dead end’ vocational courses that add nothing to future workers job prospects and potentially leaves them even worse off when applying for jobs. 

Much of the government’s intention in increasing the school leaving age was to reduce the torrid youth unemployment figures, as well as the number of young people Not in Education, Employment or Training (otherwise called NEETs). However, the reforms have failed to deliver significant changes to either of these problems. Increasing the school leaving age may have been a quick fix to the surge in youth unemployment after the 2008 financial crisis. However, the youth unemployment rate before the pandemic stood at 11 per cent; this is only three per cent lower than in 2015 when the age extension was implemented. Similarly, the percentage of NEETs has only fallen by half a per cent since September 2015. In context, Switzerland and Germany, both nations who have lower school leaving age and encourage vocational careers, have far lower rates of youth unemployment than we do.

The government has also imposed unintentional restrictions on people who wish to take an apprenticeship scheme by introducing the Apprenticeship Levy. Its introduction requires the rate of half a per cent to be paid on employers with a payroll in excess of £3 million. Unfortunately, the inadvertent effect of the levy has seen reluctance for companies to take on apprentices. This is because the levy mimics tax on income and because it applies according to the size of the company, and not the income of the employee, low paid staff in large companies are harshly hit. Subsequently, there has been a reduction in apprenticeships. Apprenticeship starts fell by 26 per cent from 2015/16 to 2017/18. Thus, many young people will continue in education for a further two years without the opportunity to acquire qualifications or skills to benefit their future career. 

There is also an economic need to lower the education age. For many people who know what career they wish to pursue, staying in education holds back their potential to enter the workforce and given the shortages experienced in some sectors of the UK economy, it would be useful to enable willing 16-year-olds to fill the labour vacuum. In 2018, The Financial Times reported that hotels and restaurants, information and communication, and construction were the three industries facing the most significant labour shortages. This will only grow as the economic consequences of Covid-19 become even more apparent.

Finally, the taxpayer will benefit by reverting back to the pre-2015 school leaving age of 16 years. Further education costs the taxpayer £5,870 per student. Since it has been established how pointless many of these qualifications are to future workers, it does not appear right that the taxpayer is required to foot the bill for the 350,000 young people who do not benefit from the further education funding that they receive. 

Ultimately, forcing students to stay in education until they are 18 damages their career prospects, creates holes in the labour market and costs the taxpayer far too much money. If the current government slaughtered this sacred cow, then they would not only be supporting those looking to enter competitive workplaces, but they will actively counteract the economic problems facing Britain, whilst relieving the pockets of the taxpayer.

By J Walters

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