Alan Johnson's proposal of legislation for compulsory education up to 18 seems to have been well received. Employers, unions and politicians offered support with various degrees of enthusiasm. By contrast an online e-petition opposing extending compulsory education, set up on the 10 Downing Street website, had received only 11 signatures by last weekend. But if the legislation is to be introduced, as Mr Johnson would like, by 2013, it's just as well that he has six years to iron out the many policy and resource implications thrown up.
The Leitch report has already exhaustively revealed how Britain is way behind its competitors in its skills needs in the new global market. And last month Gordon Brown said very bluntly: "Young people have got to get the qualifications that are necessary for the future". So there is clear determination at the top to deal with the fact that too many young people are not in training, education or work. The Government does not seem to be suggesting that young people are forced to stay in school. Gordon Brown said: "I think what we"re talking about is part-time or full-time in college, in school or in the workplace, but with everybody having the chance to stay in education until they are 18".
So far so good. Some will stay at school, some will move on to colleges and others will gain apprenticeships in workplaces. But for those in the FE sector this debate highlights the question of what provision will be made for the hundreds of thousands of young people who will take the training. Education until 18 is a great idea in principle and the support shown for the Secretary of State and Chancellor's bold vision is welcome. But we need to be practical and a lot of questions need to be answered. Not least about where the considerable resources will come from. We therefore await the Comprehensive Spending Review with interest.
The school system and curriculum is not ideal for many young adults who want to feel more independent. Would there be significant changes to the curriculum to reflect this? Is it fair to impose an extra burden on teachers to try and inspire even more people to stay on? Obviously there would need to be significant funds channelled into the FE sector, and a commensurate need for staff "“ it will take serious time and planning to direct such resources to the right place.
Obviously there are also implications for employers. In an ideal world we would expect them to only offer jobs with training involved. But as unionlearn and the TUC revealed last year, one in three employers refuse to train, so this would indeed require a revolutionary approach. However Leitch's recommendations, and Train to Gain, should herald a new era in the general culture of employer training, and if not, compulsion is threatened in future.
The need to continually raise the profile of the skills debate is vital as Gordon Brown made plain that by 2020 Britain will only need 600,000 unskilled jobs. Therefore, those employers who don"t offer training must be helped or cajoled into including training in their overall strategy. Unions with unionlearn have shown how this can be achieved, and there are now over 400 learning agreements in workplaces all over the country to prove it.
The commitment to double the number of Apprenticeships is welcome. There are some important examples of these schemes such as Network Rail's Training Apprenticeship Scheme in Gosport. However, the wider provision should be of high quality, with employed status and lead to good jobs as well as increase equality and diversity.
There is much to look forward to in the Government's proposal to extend "staying on" in education. But the proposals must be robust enough to ensure that young people feel keen to stay. This means a major increase in funding, respect, increased status and support for those who have to deliver the goods.
Liz Smith, Director, unionlearn.
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