If 16-to-18 participation is “compulsory” then it should be funded at the same level as other compulsory phases, argues John Widdowson

Ten years ago, Alan Johnson MP, then Secretary of State for Education and Science, announced that all young people should be obliged to remain in education, an apprenticeship or employment with training until their eighteenth birthday. This laudable ambition was aimed at reducing to zero, the number of young people who left the compulsory stage of education with few if any useful qualifications. Legislation followed to enshrine Raising the Participation Age (RPA) in law. Governments of all parties since then have continued to support the policy.

Ten years on, the bad news is that the situation has barely improved. Indeed, from some perspectives, the position of our 16-to-18 years may have become worse.

Although local authorities report the number of NEET young people to government on a regular basis, on occasion drawing attention to reductions in the overall numbers, the proportion of young people satisfying the more stringent RPA criteria remains near 10 per cent. Even for those young people who do remain engaged at 16, the number who subsequently become NEET almost doubles in each subsequent year. Something is clearly not working.

Getting it right by the age of 18 for more of our young people is undoubtedly more cost effective than trying to remedy things later

The reasons for this are many. Most fundamentally, the 16-to-18 phase of education is underfunded (at £4,000 per annum) when compared with the resources made available for 11- to 16-year-olds at school (who receive approximately £4,800) and significantly less than the £9,000 paid by most students to study at university.

The impact is felt most by the young people themselves, whether they remain at school in the sixth from, attend sixth-form college, follow a vocational course at an FE college or undertake an apprenticeship.

Inadequate funding means that curriculum choice is reduced, with fewer subjects offered at A-level. Smaller post-16 providers find their very viability at risk. Vocational students have less time to develop the skills demanded by employers as course hours reduce. The lack of high-quality careers advice for all young people means that not all 16-year-olds make the choice which is right for them, no doubt contributing to the decline in uptake of apprenticeships at 16.

For many young people the personal development activities which prepare them for employment or higher study are severely reduced.

For those young people who do less well at 16, the situation is worse.

For those who haven’t achieved a C at GCSE English and maths, the prospect of resits looms large, potentially reinforcing past failure and reducing the time spent on the vocational course which will form the foundation of their future career. If a further year in sixth form or college is needed, then the already inadequate funding is reduced further.

It is ironic that the students who need most support to succeed, often coping with serious health conditions, difficult personal circumstances or who simply need that extra time, are worth less.

It doesn’t have to be like this. RPA remains the right thing to do. To succeed, the 16-to-18 phase must be recognised as important in its own right.

Students must be fairly funded, at least to the level of the earlier phase of compulsory education. Rather than introduce reforms on a piecemeal basis, all elements of the post-16 curriculum in its widest sense should be coordinated, including curriculum reform, careers advice and guidance, and individual support for those with mental health or other needs.

Although these interventions will carry a cost, getting it right by the age of 18 for more of our young people is undoubtedly more cost effective than trying to remedy things later.

Our young people deserve the best start to their adult lives, with high-quality choices for academic study, robust vocational alternatives and a work-based route that’s valued and supported by employers. It is time that working with providers, policy makers and young people themselves, we make the promise of RPA a reality.

John Widdowson is the principal of New College Durham and the author of ‘Mending the gap: Are the needs of our 16- to 18-year-olds being met?‘, published by the Campaign for Learning and NCFE in January 2018