Having raised the school leaving age to 18, it should come as no surprise that some very powerful people with the ear of government are now keen to lower the school leaving age to 14. Lord Digby Jones is at the forefront of this drive. Such is the topsy-turvy world of government.
I appeared with him on Radio London today on the Robert Elms Show where he explained that the chronically failing education system meant that many children would be far better off with work placements from 14 years of age rather than taking their GCSEs. He said that pupils should be able to opt out of school and should be inducted into apprenticeships with suitable businesses for three or four days a week, while attending college for the remaining time. His claim was that many pupils were learning nothing in school and would learn more learning a trade. He incorrectly said that over half of pupils were failing to get a C grade or more in GCSE English and Maths. The correct figure are:41% of pupils did not achieve a C grade in maths and 35% did not achieve this benchmark in English. In other words 65% of pupils do achieve a C grade in English; there are substantially more “literate” pupils than he claims according to this measure.
I argued that the picture that he painted of our schools failing so many children was false and that the vast majority of pupils did well out of the current system and that we should work on improving existing provision rather than casting out millions of children into the world of work when they’re simply not ready. There is a very strong link between social deprivation and educational under-achievement; there’s absolutely no reason why Digby Jones’s ideas will improve this situation. We’d be far better off spreading good practice; working getting the best schools to collaborate with ones that are struggling so that all our pupils raise their achievements. Schools like Mossbourne Academy and Bethnal Green Technology College (BGTC) have shown that you can educate our poorest children to the highest of standards. This year at BGTC eight out of ten pupils got 5 A*-C grades at GCSE, including English and Maths, with over half of them being on Free School Meals. Both these schools have well developed vocational pathways for under-achieving students but they also make their pupils take the standard GCSEs as well; there’s lessons to learn from them.
Digby Jones’s ideas are based on the Austrian model and more generally the Germanic model of having a “dual education” system, with parity between between vocational and academic education. The vocational system in Austria has become very fashionable amongst right-wing circles in recent months, especially since the summer’s riots. I attended a talk about the system at the Austrian embassy this Thursday where a number of Austrian education gurus spoke of the wonders of their system where nearly half of 14 year-olds leave school and serve as apprentices. I noticed a few policy wonks from various right-wing think-tanks in attendance too. There are over 250 types of apprenticeships in Austria; detailed careers advice is given to the young people and together with their parents they sign a contract with the relevant business or trade which effectively “indentures” them with their business for the next few years. Training is provided for the employers and the system is monitored tightly by central government. The apprentice system appears to work there, with youth unemployment running at just 7%, far lower than the rampant rates of unemployment we have in this country.
So why don’t we imitate it?
There are some good reasons why I feel the Austrian system will not work here. Firstly, size and demographics. Austrian has a population of 8m, with fewer than a million pupils at school; we have a school population which is bigger than the entire country. Austria is a very wealthy country with relatively small differences in wealth between the rich and poor; there is virtually no immigration there. If every family in England had the average wealth of an Austrian family there is a good reason to believe that we wouldn’t have so much educational under-achievement; time and again, the statistics show a very strong correlation between wealth and educational achievement and employment chances.
Secondly and following on from this point, imagine the nightmare of the families of the apprentices signing detailed and complicated contracts with the prospective employers; in Austria, where there are relatively few problem families, it’s not a problem, but can you imagine some of our parents being involved with this process or knowing much about how to do this? Can you imagine central government supervising millions of children in thousands of different trades and ensuring there was quality across the board? Logistically, it would be a complete disaster here.
Thirdly, I believe the Austrian system is going to run into big trouble soon because the nature of the workforce is changing so rapidly; it’s already struggling to keep up with the changes in technology that are going on. Austria, which earns most of its money from exports, has benefited greatly from the Euro, being able to sell its goods relatively cheaply in Europe. That soon, given the crisis with the Euro, is going to change; many businesses may go bankrupt. What happens to their vocational training then?