Raising of the school leaving age

A Teacher writes . . .

Over the past twenty years or so education has become one of the most popular discussion topics among pundits, practitioners and participants alike. Following the 1944 Butler Education Act, and the resulting tripartite secondary system of grammar, technical and modern schools, there has been much heated argument about early selection and the relatively privileged position of the grammar schools. This in turn has been followed by a movement towards comprehensive schools and their gradual and partial replacement of grammar schools. But the concept of “equality of educational opportunity” has meant many things to many people in the past, not least among supporters of the comprehensive movement who saw in such schools the opportunity to put into practice such ideas of equality. The publication of three “Black Papers” on education by anti-comprehensive writers, and indeed other writings by some who support the idea in principle, has shown that much of the expected outcome has not been fulfilled, and the ethos within these schools today seems to hold little promise of a more egalitarian structure in education. As Dennis Marsden point out, in Education For Democracy, the early supporters of comprehensives looked to these new schools to provide a solvent for class barriers and inequality. They urged the abolition of grammar schools on the grounds of social exclusiveness, narrowness and rigidity of academic curriculum. By contrast, many of the later supporters of the comprehensive schools have wanted merely an extension of the grammar school traditions with a higher proportion of the population benefiting. Also, instead of the proposed unstreaming and the common curriculum, with flexible teaching methods intended to promote a new co-operative atmosphere especially geared towards the average or less-able child, the existing competitive streamed and specialised structure has for the most part been retained. The measure of success is still the number of GCE passes, university places and the more efficient use of scarce science and maths teachers.

Accompanying these arguments have been other equally passionate themes such as forms of examinations, school organisation and size of classes, changing pattern of sixth forms, abolition of free milk, and as a reminder that teachers are very much part of the class struggle there has been regular recurrences of teachers’ pay negotiations. Now comes the latest controversy in this long line of reform, namely the raising of the school leaving age, or ROSLA as it has become popularly known. From next year pupils whose fifteenth birthday falls on or after 1 September, 1972, will have to remain at school for one year more than they would otherwise have done, although it must at once be made clear that many children already stay on at school quite voluntarily. In fact there is an average of some 60 per cent of the age group throughout the country already doing so. This figure must, however, be considered further to establish precisely where the problems are likely to arise. It does not follow that 60 per cent in every area stay on at school; the incidence varies from about 68 per cent in Greater London and the South to some 42 per cent in the East Midlands.

The concern among practising teachers and administrators is directed towards the group of pupils who would normally leave at fifteen, and although these represent a minority of the age group there is a feeling that these “reluctant learners”, as they have come to be called, will cause disruption disproportionately to their numbers. An indication of this concern can be seen in Enquiry I, a Government Social Survey undertaken as part of the Schools Council’s programme for helping teachers prepare for the raising of the school leaving age. Around 3,000 teachers were interviewed.

The majority had some reservations about the advantages of keeping at least some of their pupils at school for the extra year, and one union — The National Association of Schoolmasters — views the plan with considerable apprehension. During the debate on the proposal at its Easter Conference, older delegates said their life expectancy was being shortened by five years by the stresses of coping with unruly teenagers in large urban schools.

Britain, of course, is not alone in this desire to extend education beyond the current school leaving age. Although there has been something of an explosion of pupils between 17-18 in schools there is still only 19 per cent of the age group getting full-time education. This compares with 24 per cent in France and Italy, some 38 per cent in the Netherlands and Belgium, over 70 per cent in Japan and nearly 90 per cent in America and higher proportions will soon be internationally commonplace. Yet some are asking if these figures are justified even by present-day standards, when one considers the type of education churned out for these increasing numbers. Does capitalist society need the technologists, and if so are the schools best fitted to train them, and should, in fact, that be the purpose of mass education? One writer, Paul Goodman, in his book Compulsory Miseducation, uses the following argument to question the value of extended education.

It is claimed that society needs more people who are technically trained. But informed labour people tell me that, for a job requiring skill but no great genius, a worker can be found at once, or quickly trained to fill it. For instance, the average job in General Motors’ most automated plant requires three weeks of training for those who have no education whatever. It used to require six weeks; for such automation has diminished rather than increased the needs for training. In the Army and Navy, fairly complicated skills e.g. radar operation and repair, are taught on the job in a year, often to practical illiterates.

The argument here is not that there should be no education for the mass of people, but rather what type of education, and to whom should it be orientated. Goodman argues that it is time we stopped using the word “education” honorifically, and that the present type of compulsory schooling under the present administrators, far from being extended, should be sharply curtailed. He feels that schools should become less institutionalised and much more flexible, with opportunities to return to education in later years as the desire or needs demand.

The purpose of this article is not to oppose the raising of the school leaving age, though it is clear that there has been a lack of preparation to meet the obvious demands this will make on an already overburdened educational system. And there are many in education today who have serious misgivings as to whether reforms like this will be an improvement. Evidence of this doubt can readily be seen in the new books dealing with the aims and values of modern schools, books such as Paul Goodman’s Compulsory Miseducation, Everett Reimer’s School is Dead, Ivan Illich’s work on the school as an institution, and many others searching for alternatives in education. So much of their description is correct, but the prescription is lacking, and while education today is restricting, limiting and narrow in every sense, putting this right can only be done in an alternative society, and for this reason we direct our efforts towards the establishing of Socialism rather than concerning ourselves with advocating or opposing reforms such as the raising of the school leaving age. As a practising teacher, very much in the front line of action, and like so many other teachers up and down the country, I shall endeavour to face the realities of the situation and work out a series of solutions and compromises, at the same time making the extra year as profitable and as enjoyable to the young people in my care as I possibly can. Perhaps one good feature about the whole scheme is that many adolescents are becoming more informed about world problems, and discussion groups within the schools are allowing them to become aware that the solutions to social problems such as war, poverty, unemployment and pollution can only be found through the establishment of a non-competitive society. (We have recently been invited to talk to groups of senior pupils within the schools, and the response to our case is encouraging).

Education in the seventies will continue to develop along the lines that it has for the past century, and to the same purpose, that is producing workers capable of manning the machinery of production and distribution, who are paid in return sufficient wages and salaries to reproduce their energies. The fact that some workers progress beyond this stage is due to their own efforts rather than the educational system, just as it was during the last century in Britain and just as it is today in many of the underdeveloped countries throughout the world. The Times “Turnover” article (29 April, 1964) pointed out that “Strictly speaking the hottest political debates about education are not about education at all. They are about national investment, national competitiveness, social justice and above all class.” The discussion, in other words, is about educational reforms within the context of capitalism. Real freedom and a truly liberal education can only come about in a cooperative and non-competitive society. Socialists look forward to the day when education will be genuinely for the individual, and when the development of creative talents will replace the pre-packeted, mass-training that sadly passes for education today.