Monday, 2 July 2012

Rising Participation: the end of the trend?

by Mick Fletcher

For the last ten years the number of 16 and 17 year olds participating in education and training has risen slowly but surely so that now over 95% of the former and 90% of the latter continue learning in one way or another.  Despite major efforts by successive governments to increase the numbers on apprenticeships the growth has in fact been driven by a growth in full time education; work based learning accounts for fewer than 4% of 16 year olds and 7% of 17 year olds. The statistical first release published at the end of June 2012 however shows that for the first time in a decade the overall numbers at December 2011 show a downturn. Is this the end of a trend?

It would not have been surprising if at a time of high unemployment work based learning numbers had fallen. In fact they held up and participation even grew for each age group, though admittedly by only one tenth of a percentage point (ppt.).  What is disturbing is that at a time when jobs are in short supply the numbers engaged in full time education should fall – by 1.8 ppt. for those aged 16 and 0.3 ppt. for 17 year olds.  The fact that 16 year olds should be disproportionately affected suggests that the hasty decision to scrap Education Maintenance Allowances might be one cause.  This hypothesis is supported by the fact that the fall in participation is concentrated on those in FE colleges and those on lower level courses as early research carried out by RCU for AoC had predicted.

This is not good news for the strategy to make participation compulsory for 16 year olds in 2013 and to the 18th birthday by 2015.  The latter target is particularly challenging since well over 10% of those studying at 16 are not in education a year later and most of those leaving do not go onto apprenticeships.  The new arrangements for 16-18 study programmes as recommended by Alison Wolf, an announcement on which is expected imminently from DfE, will have to make a dramatic impact if the 17 year old target is to have any hope of being achieved.

In fact the picture is even worse than the headline figures suggest.  The major growth area for participation is part time FE.  Most of those involved in part time study were either unemployed or inactive which means that they are most unlikely to  count as participating under RPA; indeed it is unclear whether many of those who are employed are studying large enough part time programmes to count.  This puts us even further away from the target.

Furthermore, if employers who currently offer jobs with little or no training to 16 and 17 year olds choose to recruit older workers rather than improve their training offer to the level that RPA requires the consequence will be to raise the proportions who are NEET.   The one bright spot in the SFR is that the NEET numbers have not rocketed in the recession and for 16 and 17 year olds taken together registered a slight fall.  That small gain may yet prove to be illusory.

Mick Fletcher is a policy consultant to the Campaign for Learning and a member of the Policy Consortium  He writes here in a personal capacity.

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