The Guardian 13/03/2007
Education make you fick, innit?” was how one further education student explained why he was not “aiming higher” for university. So it’s perhaps not surprising that many young people oppose raising the school-leaving age to 18. They echo the working-class children and families who saw the previous raising of the school-leaving age from 15 to 16, in 1972, as only disguising unemployment.
Educators have been more positive, but there has been remarkably little debate, possibly because the date for the change – 2013 – seems so distant. Employers are most enthusiastic as they always say they need more skills.
Yet simultaneously they introduce new technology to automate and de-skill, while exporting jobs abroad. What employers really want – and have largely got – is a glut of applicants, sorted by their qualifications. The government follows by offering vocational diplomas to re-engage those failed by academic schooling. But everybody knows “vocational” options are second best and often do not lead to jobs. Yet with 40% of the age range continuing to higher education via sixth form or college, staying till 18 is already normal for many.
Establishing it officially could emphasise the assumption of full citizenship rights and democratic responsibilities from that age. However, if the raising of the school- leaving age is to affirm adult citizenship, debate about the purpose of education must be reopened, since learning at all levels now plays an increasing role in social control. Dedicated obsessively to the vocational needs of the economy, education no longer aspires to emancipate the minds of future generations. Instead, it increasingly forecloses possibilities.
In this sense, education really does make you fick, innit? So, for those alienated by their previous academic and competitive schooling, their further two years in sixth form or college must have as little resemblance as possible to that previous schooling. Adequate financial support should be available to students from 16 to 18, with education maintenance allowances for all. Higher education fees must also be abolished, as these deter people who are unwilling to become indebted.
Adequate maintenance is required so students have time to pursue their studies, whether full- or part-time. Access courses need to be extended and prior experience recognised as an entitlement to pursue cultural interests, whether or not these relate to employment. This will help raise the collective intelligence of society. Education can no longer be limited to selection for employment. Encouraging an inquisitive and critical view of the workplace can prompt necessary change in the way employment and economy are organised.
To take advantage of the latest technology, for instance, we must recognise how technology has been applied to de-skill so many jobs. As a result, old divisions between mental and manual labour have been augmented by new ones that education is complicit in sustaining. In particular, a section of the former manual working class has been relegated to an underclass devoid of any meaningful qualifications and destined for a life of “Mcjobs” – if they find employment at all. To those in the “new working-middle” of this re-divided society, education seems to offer a way of avoiding relegation to the underclass.
But even Learning Unto Death does not guarantee secure employment in an economy where new divisions of knowledge and skill match widening social polarisation. Constantly seeking to test, differentiate and marginalise students, schools, colleges and universities reinforce the self-destructive society they helped create. The 50% target for higher education still writes off half our children. Raising the leaving age to 18 provides an opportunity for debate about a new direction at all levels of education and training