Monday, 12 March 2012

A New Deal for 16 and 17 Year Olds

by Mark Corney

These are hard times to increase participation in education and training by 16 and 17 year olds.

The new £42m a year programme for disengaged 16 and 17 year olds is a welcome step but well short of what is needed.

The Coalition must offer a new deal to 16 and 17 year olds in time for the start of the next academic year in September. 

 16 and 17 year olds can be classified as in: full-time education (450 guided learning hours or more); part-time education; jobs with apprenticeships; jobs with employer funded training; jobs without training and those not in ‘education, employment and training’ (NEET).

Those jobs with apprenticeships, jobs without training and jobs with employer funded training are counted as employed. 16 and 17 year olds in full-time education can be employed, unemployed or inactive*, and the same is the case for those on part-time education. 16 and 17 year olds who are NEET can be unemployed or inactive.

In December 2010, 2.2% of 16 year olds (14,000) and 6.8% of 17 year olds (44,000) were NEET, with more unemployed than inactive.

Reducing the NEET category requires more than targeting support on disengaged learners. Policies must also be in place which support and indeed expand - rather than undermine participation in other categories. Equally, a clear definition of what counts as ‘good’ participation is also critical.

There are two categories which can be classified as ‘good’ participation. They are full-time education and jobs with apprenticeships.

Conversely, there are two categories which can be classed as ‘bad’ participation. The first is jobs without training because 16 and 17 year olds should be in some form of accredited training. And the second category is jobs with employer funded training because so often the training is of short duration and unaccredited.

Less clear cut is part-time education. There are as many studying only 50 guided learning hours as there are 400. They can also be in employment, unemployed or inactive.

On balance, the Coalition seem content for 16 and 17 year olds to combine employment with part-time study (preferably 280 guided learning hours per year) but for those who are inactive or unemployed the Coalition seem to believe they should really study full-time.

In line with 18-24 year olds, the Coalition is concerned with those 16 and 17 year olds who are ‘unemployed and inactive’ but not in full-time education’, and those in jobs without training or poor quality training.

As at December 2010, 5.7% of 16 year olds (36,000) and 10.6% of 17 year olds (68,000) were unemployed and inactive but not in full-time education. And a further 1.6% of 16 year olds (10,000) and 5.7% of 17 year olds (37,000) were in jobs with or without training.

Around 151,000 16 and 17 year olds, therefore, need to enter full-time education, find jobs with apprenticeships or combine employment with part-time study.

The task will be greater going forward as jobs for 16-17 year olds outside of full-time education continue to disappear.

Since the start of the recession, the proportion 16 and 17 year olds in jobs with or without training has shrunk from 6% to 2% of the cohort. At the same time, the proportion combining employment and part-time study has halved from 2% to 1%. And whilst the proportion of 16 and 17 year olds in jobs with apprenticeships has remained at 5% - a good outcome given the recession – it is nowhere near the level required.

Overall, more 16 and 17 year olds are studying full-time as jobs with or without training has collapsed but not enough to prevent an increase in the number who are ‘unemployed and inactive’ but not in full-time education. 

And so despite the deepest recession since the 1930s, full-time education remains an unattractive option for many 16 and 17 year olds, and indeed continues to fall by 10 percentage points from 16 to 17.

Alarms bells should be ringing throughout the Coalition. Decisions already taken and those in the pipeline are on course to undermine participation in full-time education just at the time when it needs to expand.

16-19 financial support policy is a train crash waiting to happen. The replacement of Education Maintenance Allowances with the Bursary Grant Scheme is starting to be felt. But financial support is wider than the bursary.

To help 16-19 year olds stay-on in full-time further education parents are entitled to Child Benefit and Child Tax Credit. Despite the media spotlight on non-means tested Child Benefit, the post-16 sector should be more concerned about changes to means-tested Child Tax Credit.

It is unlikely that the removal of child benefit from each higher rate taxpayer earning above £42,475 per year would squeeze household income to end family support for 16 and 17 year olds to stay-on post-16.

By contrast, a less generous system of means-tested Child Tax Credit - restricting payments to families on household income of less than £26,000 - could put pressure on lower and middle income families to support teenagers to stay-on, especially since they are the same households stung by the withdrawal of EMAs.

Receipt of means-tested benefits is also used by local authorities as a way of assessing whether 16 and 17 year olds are entitled to free transport. A lower threshold for means-tested Child Tax Credit will mean more families having to pay the full cost of post-16 transport at a time when EMAs are no longer available.

From September the Coalition is going to need to introduce a fairer system of 16-17 financial support. Higher rates of financial support at 17 relative to 16 might also encourage more 17 year olds to stay-on in full-time further education.

Similarly, the Coalition needs to be sensible about restricting the type of qualifications 16 and 17 year olds are able to study.

For many young people without 5 good GCSEs including English and Maths the decision to stay-on in full-time education is driven by the ability to do a vocational course of their choice. It is also true that something must be done to raise achievement in English and Maths, through GCSE re-sits or alternative programmes – because as the Wolf Review demonstrated they are critical to long-term employability.

The danger of a restrictive menu of vocational qualifications is higher youth unemployment and disengagement. The Coalition should offer 16 and 17 year olds a broad range of vocational courses in return for greater emphasis on achieving English and Maths especially as GCSEs.

Much more also needs to be done to expand apprenticeships specifically for 16 and 17 year olds. Comparisons with Germany seem ludicrous when only 5% are on them in England and most of these are at Level 3 rather than Level 2.

One thing, however, is very clear. Raising the participation age to 17 in 2013 and to the 18th birthday in 2015 without a new deal for 16 and 17 year olds on financial support, curriculum and apprenticeships will not lead to full participation. The result will be unacceptable levels of truancy hiding unemployment and inactivity.

Mark Corney is policy adviser to the Campaign for Learning and writes in a personal capacity

This is the first of two columns on education and training policy for 16 and 17 year olds. The second will be on Raising the Participation Age.

*seeking work in the past 4 weeks and available to start work within 2 weeks

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