More and more 16 and 17 year olds are taking part in some form of education or training beyond compulsory school age. That upward trend is welcome; but it will need to continue if we are to have a thriving, competitive economy founded on a highly skilled workforce. We still have large numbers of young people left behind, disengaged from learning and with poor prospects for employment. The Government's response is to proceed with raising the age of compulsory participation, and this Report looks at what that means for young people, schools, colleges and employers.
A readiness to take part in education or training post-16 is rooted in a positive experience before and during school. In most schools there are children aged 12 or 13, or sometimes even younger, who show little enthusiasm for "academic" learning and who see school as an irrelevance. An outward-facing approach, clearly related to work and financial independence, is needed for these children. While we would not want to encourage over-specialisation at Key Stage 4, the Department should consider whether a 40%/60% split between time spent on specifically vocational or technical study and on a core academic curriculum would best suit 14 year olds who take up vocational options while at school.
The Government is planning to review the funding formula for institutions offering courses for 16 to 18 year olds. That review should recognise the higher cost of supporting learning by young people lacking confidence and should enable all providers, including voluntary sector bodies, to offer the learning opportunities which are required. It should also, while assessing the value of every aspect of provision (including qualifications), consider the case for restoring a higher level of entitlement funding: this plays an important part in motivating and engaging all learners and in providing them with a rounded education rather than just instruction.
The Government's sudden decision to bring an end to the Education Maintenance Allowance was controversial, and views on its abolition formed a large part of our evidence. We welcome the Government's decision to provide transitional funding for some learners who had begun courses in the expectation that they would continue to receive Education Maintenance Allowance. However, allocations of funding for student support through the bursary scheme which is replacing the EMA have been made far too late to allow Year 11 students to make fully informed decisions on what they will do the following year. That delay was regrettable and should not have been allowed to happen.
The Government, in defending its decision to abolish the EMA, relied heavily on an argument that 90% of recipients would have chosen to study with or without the benefit of the Allowance. It should have done more to acknowledge the combined impact on students' participation, attainment and retention, particularly amongst disadvantaged sub-groups, before determining how to restructure financial support, and we would have welcomed a more measured and public analysis by the Government before it took the decision to abolish the EMA.
We accept that a change to financial support for 16-19 year olds was inevitable. However, it will be difficult to ensure that bursary funds are matched efficiently to need and that inconsistencies which will inevitably arise do not erode confidence in the scheme or distort learners' choices of where to study. We are not persuaded, therefore, that a strong enough case has been made for distributing £180 million in student support as discretionary bursaries rather than as a slimmed-down, more targeted entitlement.
Some 16 to 18 year olds struggle with the cost of travel to and from study. There is a strong argument for saying that 16 and 17 year olds subject to compulsory study or training should be eligible for free (or perhaps subsidised) travel in the same way as children of compulsory school age. We recommend that the Government should, as part of its review of school transport, assess the cost of offering free or subsidised travel to all 16 to 18 year olds travelling to and from learning.
It seems wholly unfair that young people from equally deprived backgrounds should have unequal access to financial support or to support in kind, purely because of where they have chosen to study. There is no logic in making free school meals available to 16-18 year olds in schools but not in colleges, and, while we recognise that the financial implications would make an early change of policy difficult, we recommend that parity of eligibility should be the medium to long-term aim.
The Government is considering a recommendation by Professor Alison Wolf that employers of Apprentices, because they are operating at least in part as educators, should be recompensed for that role. We believe that the main motive for an employer to take on Apprentices should be to make a long-term investment in their workforce for the benefit of their staff and for good business reasons. We recommend that the Government should publish its assessment of the costs and benefits of paying employers to take on Apprentices, before it decides whether or not to go ahead. On the existing knowledge base, however, the Committee does not support the principle of payments to employers taking on Apprentices.
The Government should not lose sight of the need to retain quality in Apprenticeships, particularly if numbers of Apprentices increase substantially. We question whether Apprenticeships offered through Apprenticeship Training Agencies, where there is no long-term commitment or investment on the part of the employer offering the work placement, are of the same quality as work-based Apprenticeships with a regular employer. We recommend that such opportunities should be regarded primarily as a form of training and should be treated separately for statistical purposes.
Cost-cutting by local authorities in response to falls in grant funding has led to a sharp reduction in some areas in the availability of career guidance services for young people. This is damaging and should not be allowed to continue. Any reductions in Connexions services should be proportionate, and local authorities should respect duties imposed by Parliament to encourage, enable or assist effective participation by young people in education or training.
The Government intends that career guidance services for young people should in future be provided through schools, who would have a duty to secure independent and impartial provision. It appears that there would be no face-to-face guidance services for young people through the future National Careers Service. Schools, however, have a history of seeking to promote their own interests; and there will be some young people who are not in school or who do not have confidence in services provided in a school setting, but who nonetheless need or seek professional advice. We therefore recommend that the National Careers Service should be funded by the Department for Education to provide face to face careers guidance for young people.