by Pat Thomson
5th December 2019

Educational qualifications don’t guarantee a job or career. But they certainly help. Put simply, people with lower levels of education and qualifications are far more likely to be unemployed than those with higher levels of education.

The odds are worse for women and people of colour than for men. It was thus alarming to see, in September 2019, research from the Children’s Commissioner which showed that 18% of 18 year olds leave the school system without Level 2 qualifications – Level 2 is the General Certificate of School Education (GCSE). About a third of that 18% were young people living in poverty and nearly half had diagnosed special educational needs.

18% – or nearly one in five young people leaving school inadequately prepared for the future – is a clear signal of a school system which needs to do better. The figure also suggests potential future social costs in health, housing and welfare budgets. Given this, it is perhaps surprising that leaving school unqualified was not a key education policy priority for all of the political parties.

It is only the Labour Party which has seen the life chances of this group of young people as important. They have offered a suite of policies which could make significant differences to the ‘miseducated’, young people pushed to the educational margins.  Labour promise to:

  • increase funding for special educational needs, improve mental health and counselling provision and provide more health visitors to schools and restore the youth service. While none of these attend directly to learning, they may well change the everyday lives of young people so that it is much easier for them to attend school and be successful.
  • overhaul alternative education. Almost all young people in alternative provision leave school without level 2 qualifications and many of them need additional learning support.
  • restore the Education Maintenance Allowance for 16-19 year olds. This would make going regularly to school or college a more realistic proposition for young people whose families are living in poverty. Lack of money for public transport and necessary books and equipment is a significant deterrent for many older youth.

The most radical proposal is retrospective. Acknowledging that the 18% of unqualified school leavers is not a new or one year only phenomenon, Labour also promises all those who have missed out on schooling a second chance. The election manifesto offers a lifetime entitlement to Level 3 qualifications (up to A levels or an advanced apprenticeship) and six years of free education at Levels 4-6 for adults (level 6 is a degree or a degree based apprenticeship).  While the offer of free university undergraduate education will please middle class voters, it is the possibility of going back to school at any time that has the potential to make an enormous difference to the lives of the many.

But the devil is in the detail of how these promises are to be delivered. For example:

    1. Very good teachers are needed. Teaching anyone who has been failed by the school system, regardless of age, requires particular professional knowledges, skills and attitudes. There is no point doing more of what didn’t work last time around. There is also no gain in assuming the all of those without qualifications have had the same experiences, have the same needs and interests and will thus respond to the same kind of teaching. Curriculum must be adapted and often specially designed for young people and for adults who lack sound learning foundations, but who also may have life experiences and knowledge to draw on. Teaching approaches must address learnt feelings of failure while neither infantalising nor lowering expectations. Teachers who know how to do this still work within the school and FE system but there are too few of them to deliver Labour’s ambition.
    2. A coherent system for credit transfer and recognition of prior learning is vital. The Coalition government’s education reforms removed the option for non-school subjects to be ‘cashed in’ to the GCSE. This was sold at the time as an equity strategy, to be a way of ensuring that all young people studied what was important. The lie in this argument can readily be seen in the 18% statistic – young people who do not achieve the qualification, and for whom alternative courses might make a difference. However, getting rid of the previous credit transfer and RPL system may now be a blessing as there were often significant barriers to making the ideal of a seamless integrated system a reality. In alternative education for example, young people often took vocational courses which had a GCSE part equivalence but when they went to college with their carefully accumulated portfolios and certificates, admissions tutors were unable or unwilling to credit this learning back into GCSE. Similarly, young people approaching higher education without the requisite A levels, but with vocational qualifications, often had mixed receptions.

Sorting out how a second chance at schooling might be implemented might take some time. It might require critically revisiting the past as well as looking elsewhere for good practices. And it might be costly. But addressing the compound and complex barriers and chequered experiences of those failed by their education is an important social justice goal, and one which offers respect and regard for those too often seen as solely responsible for their educational situation.


School Scandals: Blowing the whistle on the corruption of our education system by Pat Thomson is available on the Policy Press website. Order here for £10.39.

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