Gordon Brown has been talking on the Today programme about the importance of flexibility in education to promote opportunity. He cited John Denham's fees holiday as a good example. But there is a real danger that his enthusiasm for a compulsory education leaving age of 18 will militate against what he really wants to achieve. Contrary to what some claim, this is not just about staying in school. In truth, most will take level 2 (GCSE standard) college courses, start apprenticeships or learn at work. It is certainly a noble goal to increase staying on in education. But is it right to impose a new legal leaving age? Part of the problem is that the policy confuses two issues: those who are genuinely doing nothing (and most of those called NEETs drift between employment, only 1 in 10 NEETS or 1 in 100 of 17-18 year olds are long-term jobless) and those who are in work, but not undertaking recognised training. Many of the latter are being trained, but until recently officialdom was fairly inflexible in recognising good training provided by, for example, the big supermarket companies. That has recently changed, but one still must ask why so few young people in work who have a legal Right to Study since 1998 don't exercise that right.
These are not the only issues. Why should we require those who already have a level 2 (GCSE-standard) qualification to continue studying, if they don't want to? Why can't more young people start apprenticeships at 14? Is there enough independent careers advice to guide young people to the right course or work-based training for them - far too many young people stay a year in the sixth form to do AS levels for £30 a week educational maintenance allowances, when they'd be better off at college or starting an apprenticeship. If we want young people to learn while they delay leaving, we should be getting those issues right before we legislate. That would be the flexible approach to promoting opportunity.
UPDATE: Gordon Brown has confirmed that this will be part of the legislative programme in the autumn. When the original plans were published, it was envisaged that compulsion would not be introduced until all the Diplomas were ready, meaning it would not be enforced until 2015. It is vital that time is used to make staying on an opportunity rather than a punishment for those who wouldn't otherwise do so.