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January 15, 2007

It would be far better to lower - rather than raise - the school leaving age, argues Theodore Dalrymple

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

The Government has proposed raising the school leaving age from sixteen to eighteen. Theodore Dalrymple argues that raising the school leaving age will do nothing to improve the education of British youths. It would be far better - argues Theodore Dalrymple - to lower the school leaving age than to raise it.

As a medical student we had lots of multiple-choice exams, which were then the latest thing in educational theory. One particular student posed a conundrum: he used regularly to receive a score so low that it could not be explained by chance. Did this mean that, in a perverse way, he was actually quite knowledgeable?

One might pose the same question about British governments: they get everything the wrong way round so often that mere ignorance or stupidity cannot explain it. I don't go so far, however, as to claim that I can explain it, and my attempts to do so usually end up in the realms of conspiracy theory, which makes me appear slightly mad. Suffice it, then, just to say that it is so.

The latest perversity is the scheme to raise the school leaving age to eighteen. Of successive governments it might be said that they had laid waste to schools (and universities), and called it education. And having ensured that a good proportion of the population can hardly read or write, despite a vast increase in expenditure on supposed education, the government now proposes to keep illiterates and innumerates in school for an extra two years whether they like it or not.

The results are not very difficult to predict, at least for those who are familiar with the old and hackneyed, but nonetheless true, saying that you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink. The adolescents who do not want to be in school and have learnt very little during their previous eleven years of compulsory attendance will be sullen, disruptive, aggressive and even violent. They will prevent, or at least hinder, those who do want to pursue their studies from doing so. They will be an additional nightmare for teachers, who will in essence be guardians of youth in preventive detention: for preventive detention (and not all that preventive, either) will be what the extra years mean for quite a large proportion of those subjected to the latest governmental fiat.

As a friend of mine, who had experience in such matters via his children, recently pointed out to me, the only things wrong with British state education are the schools, the teachers, the parents and the children. These things are not very likely to be improved by a prolongation of the agony.

Some of our schools are not only passively non-educational, but actively anti-educational. It is perfectly possible while attending them to forget what little has previously been learnt in them. I was always astonished to discover the Muslim girls, who had been withdrawn from school (illegally, of course) at the age of twelve by their parents, in order that they should not become infected with the admittedly decadent and repellent ways of their white peers, nevertheless were better-educated, and generally knew more, than those very peers who had remained in school for a further four years. The idea that children know more, and attain useful skills, in proportion to the length of their compulsory education is simply preposterous.

Even among children from higher social classes, who do not attend sink schools, this is not so. I hesitate to use anecdotal evidence, but then again I hesitate not to use it when it lies so readily to hand. Two adolescent youths of my acquaintance - the children of parents with the conventional belief that higher education is the key to a secure, prosperous and meaningful existence in later life - caused untold heartache to their parents because of their refusal to take school seriously. They misbehaved, were sullen and unruly, broke all the rules and in general did everything possible to ruin their parents' peace of mind.

Their parents changed their schools, on the theory that perhaps it was this or that institution that did not suit them, for idiosyncratic reasons of personality clash; they expended thousands on expensive private establishments, even those that specialised in wayward or disaffected adolescents. All to absolutely no avail.

Things looked pretty serious, especially for one of them, who even had what we doctors call "trouble with the police". But then their parents had the brilliant idea of doing as the two adolescent males had long wanted: they took them out of school altogether, at the age of 16, which was almost infra dig in the parents' social circle. But it worked: the two young boys swiftly matured into men, found the kind of jobs they wanted (their employers are training them), and never looked back. Had they been forced to remain in school two years longer, one would probably have been a criminal, and the other a resentful layabout.

In other words, prolonged schooling is not for everyone. This is hardly an original thought. And of course I readily admit that counter-anecdotes, of children prevented by parents from continuing higher education when they desperately wanted to continue it, could readily be supplied. The point is, however, that if children are given a good grounding, that is to say an adequate basic education, they can, albeit with difficulty, follow their interests later in life. Without that adequate basic education, not only can they not do so, but it is probable that they will not even develop such interests in the first place.

Of all the failings of our educational system, the worst by far is its inability or unwillingness to provide a good basic education for millions of children, especially those of the relatively poor. The failure is irrecoverable, at least for those children. This failure is nothing short of wicked: and the insouciance with which successive governments and their bureaucratic hangers-on have disregarded this problem leaves me speechless with rage, because I saw the consequences of it for people of perfectly good intelligence every day of my working life.

But raising the school leaving age will do nothing whatever to improve matters. It would be far better to lower the school-leaving age than to raise it. If I may say so, the proposal is a typical tax-and-spend solution to a problem that is not one of expenditure. It is rather a means of reducing youth unemployment, at least in the procedural statistical sense. It is also a means of keeping the population under the control of the government for an ever greater proportion of its earthly existence. Give us a child for the first eighteen years of its life, and it is ours for ever.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and worked for many years as an inner city and prison doctor.


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I had a science teacher who told the class if they could get a score of 0 in a multiple chioce test(40 questions) but must answer every question he would give them 100%. I got 2 correct answers.

Posted by: mal at January 15, 2007 04:19 PM
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What I don't understand is why Gordon Brown wants to raise the school leaving age when at the moment the economy actually needs more manpower -even unskilled manpower and Poles and Europeans are coming to the UK to fill it. The unemployment rate is not as bad as it was in the early 90s.
I figure that Gordon Brown wants to be elected to so he has to say something and make up something to make it look like he's got an agenda.

I fully agree with everything in the article.
Sometimes someone can learn more in a job or just living their life than being in school.

Posted by: Rachel at January 15, 2007 08:06 PM
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I agree with the article and will add my own anecdote for what it is worth. I took both my children out of school -- one at age 14 and the other at 12. The first one is currently studying for her Master's degree after having very successfully completed her BA. The second is currently studying for his BA in the USA after having scored on the 99th percentile on his American SAT exams.

Posted by: Robert at January 16, 2007 10:21 AM
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The rate of return at the margin on investment in secondary education is negative. We would do better to invest in more prison cells.
Christie Davies

Posted by: Christie Davies at January 16, 2007 08:17 PM
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The article is spot-on. I've yet to meet anyone who thinks this proposal is a good idea, even though there's much talk about it on the web. Here's a sample of one such discussion, from last month.

Posted by: Paul at January 17, 2007 01:15 AM
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Why does the good doctor state that the 12 year old Muslim girl was removed illegally from school?

The home education of children is a privilege of parents, protected by statutes and case laws in Her Majesty's realm. And, as the writer underlines, is to be preferred for many children.

Posted by: Michael at July 23, 2008 11:13 AM
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