Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Britain: Rise in school leaving age to 18 'ill-conceived'

PLANS by the government to force young people to stay in education or training until they are 18 have been attacked by one of the country's leading educationists as "ill-conceived" and likely to have an "overwhelmingly negative effect". According to a pamphlet by Alison Wolf, professor of public sector management at King's College London, the policy promoted by Ed Balls, the children's secretary, will infringe civil liberties and wreck the market for youth employment while providing qualifications that have "little or no market value".

"It is one of the most ill-thought-out pieces of education legislation I have ever seen," said Wolf. "I find it very hard to find any redeeming features." Her pamphlet, published today by the Policy Exchange think tank, comes as the government prepares for a second reading in the Commons tomorrow of the bill to introduce the new "participation age".

It has also emerged that a report commissioned by the government and released without publicity has found little evidence from overseas that forcing people to stay in school or training until 18 has any benefit. "Unfortunately, it was not possible to find any direct evidence of the impact of introducing a system of compulsory education or training to the age of 18," says the review, commissioned by the Department for Children, Schools and Families. From 2015 all teenagers will have to stay at school or in training until they are 18. Those in jobs will have to take time off to train.

Other criticism has been raised because the bill does not exempt pregnant or disabled teenagers, those in the armed forces or those training to become professional athletes. "Gap" years taken by many youngsters could also be severely hit.

Balls said yesterday: "This is about extending opportunity to all young people and making sure we can succeed in the global economy." It is understood the Tories, who had previously called the policy a "gimmick", plan to abstain in the Commons. They hope to introduce amendments to remove provisions such as taking teenagers through the courts if they fail to attend training. Michael Gove, the shadow children's secretary, said: "The government's own report has outlined a series of problems with keeping children in education against their will . . . We will work with the government to improve this legislation."

But Balls said: "If the Tories sit on their hands and abstain, they will prove the Conservative party still believes in educational opportunity only for some and not for all."


British independent schools reject charity rules

Britain's leading public schools have rejected as unworkable regulations that would force them to open their doors to pupils from poor families. The Charity Commission will publish guidance this week on what the nation's 2,500 private schools must do to satisfy new laws requiring that they prove their "public benefit" in order to retain their charitable status, worth 100 million pounds in tax breaks each year. In submissions to the commission, seen by The Times, some of Britain's best-known independent schools said that draft proposals issued last year insisting that poor students "must be able to benefit" from private schools would place an unfair burden on fee-paying parents and could threaten the existence of many schools.

Jonathan Shephard, the chief executive of the Independent Schools Council, saidit had managed to force "substantial changes" in the guidance. Eton College accused the commission of employing "flawed reasoning" in arguing that the relief on public funds that independent schools provide by educating children for whom the State would otherwise have to pay provided proportionately less benefit to poor families, who pay less tax. Andrew Wynn, the bursar of Eton, wrote: "We would not seek to argue that relief of public funds is enough on its own, but we would argue that such relief is a significant matter - many of our parents are very conscious of paying twice - and is not something that should become underrated on the basis of flawed reasoning."

Rugby School, whose annual fees for boarders are 24,915 pounds, accused the commission of deliberately creating difficulties for independent schools. Gary Lydiatt, its bursar, wrote: "As drafted, the guidance suggests that without addressing the provision of services to individuals on low incomes, the public benefit test would not be met. While this is not an issue for Rugby, it could cause significant problems for other schools. "It is essential to accept that most independent schools have to charge for the services that they provide. Unless independent schools are able to do this, it is inevitable that many will close and the benefits that they provide will be lost."

Harrow School accused the commission of misinterpreting charity law. Nick Shryane, its bursar, wrote: "The phrase `must be able to benefit' should be replaced with `must not be excluded from benefiting'. "Those schools which are able to do so will be able to give direct access through bursaries to the children of families who cannot afford fees. But not all schools are well funded or able to offer bursaries."

Dame Suzi Leather, the commission's chairwoman, said in August that she would be prepared to take legal action against schools that refused to widen access. "It's going to be a difficult and contested territory," she said.


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