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Chancellor Gordon Brown yesterday backed proposals for the school-leaving age to be raised to 18 as part of a "world-class ambition".

Further, apprenticeships are to be doubled and employers invited to enter into partnerships for workplace training.

Mr Brown, speaking at the Government Leaders Forum Europe, at the Scottish Parliament, outlined his plan to boost the UK's skills economy.

He said: "Now, today in 2007, liberating technology makes it possible for us to say that every person can, and should, enjoy the opportunities of life-long education, permanent education, recurrent education - not a one-off, pass-fail, life-defining event at 11 or 16, but education for any person, any place, any time".

He referred to the principle that every young person should have a "pathway to a career", and that adults should have access to training throughout their working lives.

He continued: "Lifelong education should start with the world-class ambition that we raise the education leaving age to 18: Universal education from 5 to 11 was achieved in 1893; universal education from 5 to 14 in 1918; from 5 to 15 in 1947; from 5 to 16 in 1972. But during 30 years when globalisation has been transforming the importance of education, the span and reach of education remained the same".

"The coming generation should have the chance not just to start education at 3, but to continue in education or training until 18. If every young person after 16 had part-time or full-time schooling, college or work-based training, there would be over a quarter of a million more young people training for qualifications: over one and a half million more young people in education and training over the next ten years".

In order to achieve these "ambitious" aims, Mr Brown seeks to build on the Educational Maintenance Allowance, while introducing compulsion to participate in education for those teenagers who have "fallen through the net".

Further: "To double quality apprenticeships to 500,000 in the UK [and] to develop, like the proposed new skills academies, new routes into apprenticeship, with the widest range of enhanced vocational opportunities in earlier years".

He also looked to the American model: "To learn more from the model of US community colleges to transform further education, driven forward by more employer engagement, more individual choice, simpler routes from college courses to degrees, and, where necessary, merging or taking over failing colleges".

However, David Willets, Conservative Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills, claims that Mr Brown has been prompted into backing the rise following an increase in teenage inactivity rates.

He said: "At long last Gordon Brown has had to recognise that Labour's policy for 16 to 18 year-olds is not working. Since 1997, the number of 16 to 18 year-olds not in education, employment or training (the so-called NEETs) has risen by 27%. That is why Gordon Brown now wants to raise the school leaving age to 18".

"But he also needs to learn from his previous policy mistakes: staying on in education and training is not the same as getting qualified. For example, more than half of Britain's apprentices now drop out of their course before they complete it".

Mr Willets pointed to data released by the Office of National Statistics, stating that from 170,000 teenagers in 1997, the number of "NEETs" has risen to 216,000 in 2006 (both in Q2).

Further, he also pointed to the damning statistic that more than half of apprentices fail to complete their apprenticeship frameworks; the Learning and Skills Council's 2006 Progress Report stated that 41% of students complete the course.

He added: "Finally, Gordon Brown seems to be in a constitutional muddle. Education and training are devolved matters. So why is the UK Chancellor talking about creating 50,000 extra Scottish apprenticeship places when this is a matter for the Scottish Executive? And why is he addressing the Scottish Parliament on English educational matters over which Holyrood has no powers?"

"He seems just as muddled over constitutional policy as he is over education policy".

Vijay Pattni.

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