Sir Chris Woodhead, former chief inspector of English schools, has created a furore this week by calling for the school leaving age to be reduced to 14. Claiming that some children are simply not suited to academic study, Sir Chris called Prime Minister David Cameron “morally wrong” and attacked his education policies as “a recipe for disaster.”
Sir Chris’s major argument was that some students hit their academic peak in their early teens, and are genuinely unable to progress further in school, whilst they may be much happier and more productive entering the world of work. He suggested a path that might include an apprenticeship and “practical, hands-on, craft-based training that takes them through into a job”. He accused the government of having a “Utopian” view of school standards, and seemed to dismiss children who are already “truanting” in their early teens as a lost cause, demanding “does anybody seriously think these kids…are going to stay in school in a purposeful, meaningful way through to 18?”
But many angry parents, teachers and social commentators have protested, claiming that lowering the school leaving age would be tantamount to abandoning ‘problem’ students and allowing the education system to turn its back on them, forcing them out into the world too young before they have learned vital life lessons. Sir Chris’s reference to children who fail to attend school seems to draw a rather stereotypical parallel between children with behavioural problems and those who are not academic, which has angered many education and children’s rights campaigners. If the school system is able to write off a child who is behaving in a difficult way with the excuse that the classroom is simply not the right environment for them, it denies them the chance of the support and discipline that education can give many teenagers, helping them to solve some of their problems before they reach the real world, and face real consequences. There is a very serious risk that simply allowing ‘difficult’ pupils to abandon their studies at 14 with no guarantee of employment or mandatory training of any kind would simply lead to hugely increased adolescent crime and unemployment.
Other concerns have been raised over Sir Chris’s own ‘Utopian’ optimism about the numbers of apprenticeship places available (particularly in view of the recent record places already being filled) and the potential for exploitation of a younger workforce with very low wages. In addition, many protesters argued that a child of 14 is not yet ready to choose their path or make their way in the adult world, leaving them vulnerable to poor decisions and negative influences. Many adults who left school aged 16 to enter apprenticeships or work and are now successfully thriving spoke up to point out how crucial their GCSE level maths and English skills were to them when setting up their own businesses.
For now it seems that the variety, volume and voraciousness of voices raised against him have firmly quashed Sir Chris’s arguments. Yet a different question remains. What does it say about the state of education in England and of our failure to meet the basic needs of our students, if a former Chief Inspector of schools is led to make such drastic calls for reform? Why are only 80% of English pupils hitting government literacy targets at age 11, and why do we face a truanting crisis so bad that the head of a major school and education company calls for problem students simply to be booted out of the system altogether? The cacophonic response has made it quite clear that lowering the school leaving age is not the answer, but that still leaves the coalition government facing a very serious question indeed.