Raising the school-leaving age will make teachers ill
It’s the start of the new school year. The bell's gone, 30-odd pupils have shuffled into class and you're now facing a roomful of stroppy 17-year-olds who very vocally don't want to be there.
As a teacher, this may well be your daily reality in 2015, when all young people up to the age of 18 will have to be either in full-time education or work-based training.
And based on what happened in Spain when the school-leaving age was raised from 14 to 16 in 1998, new research from economists at Lancaster University warns that schools could be hit with mass absenteeism when teachers find themselves unable to do their job because half their class isn't interested.
Colin Green, senior lecturer at Lancaster University management school, says evidence from Spain shows that raising the compulsory "participation age" is likely to result in lower job satisfaction for teachers, greater problems with stress, and and more people leaving the profession.
Employers, he points out, will have a choice as to which young people they take on. Schools, by contrast, will have a duty to accept all comers. This means there is likely to be a large cohort of teenagers who would much rather have left school, but who will be required to spend two years more with their heads in a book.
For sixth-form. teachers, who have till now looked forward to lessons with keen-as-mustard – or at least moderately willing – A-level students, the dynamic of every class is likely to change dramatically, and is unlikely to be conducive to better learning outcomes for any of those involved.
Given this prospect, says Green, teachers should pay attention to how their day-to-day working lives will be affected when the school-leaving age goes up.
The study, done in collaboration with his research associate Maria Navarro, shows that as soon as Spain raised the statutory leaving age, "secondary school teacher absenteeism rose sharply – on average, by between 15% to 20%".
"And it wasn't a one-off," Green says. "Absence rates have stayed high in all the years following the reform. And the increase in teacher absenteeism has clear implications for the quality of education that students receive."
A particularly troubling finding, he notes, is that increases in teacher absence was even higher in areas where fewer children traditionally stayed on in school, reaching 40% in the worst areas."Teachers in these schools faced the largest change in the mix of students after the policy was implemented."
Of course, it's the areas with larger proportions of teenagers who would prefer to leave school that most need extra professional support. But instead, because teachers will find themselves under more pressure, classes are likely to be more disrupted, and absence rates will shoot through the roof. "There's a real danger," Green says, "that the policy will decrease the quality of education and training provision."
Green is not scaremongering. Previous research has shown that teacher absence is a cause of poor pupil achievement. Worse still, the negative effects of teachers being absent in large numbers for long periods are more severe for poorer pupils.
Given growing concern about the large numbers of young people in England who leave school with few qualifications and prospects, Green observes that the raising of the school-leaving age was virtually inevitable. "The profile of the August rioters will have added further steel to the commitment to keep under-18s inside one system or another," he says.
The problem the government faces, however, is that while many working in education might share the view that it's better for young people to remain in education or training, forcing reluctant teenagers to stay on at school may have the opposite effect to the one ministers intend. "The potential for a direct effect is clear: more students in schools and colleges will lead to more teaching hours and, in the absence of more teachers as a result of tightening budgets, either to an increase in teaching workloads or an increase in class sizes," says Green.
"All the evidence suggests that teaching and managing these students, and combining their needs with those of young people who would have chosen to stay on already, is likely to present new and difficult challenges."
Absenteeism on the scale observed by Green and Navarro in Spain is only one indicator of the impact of raising the participation age that ministers need to take note of. Green suggests that, like all employees, if teachers are not compensated in some way for a significant change in the essential nature of their work – through improvements in working conditions or increased pay – it's likely to have a negative effect on how they feel about their professional purpose.
For the policy of raising the compulsory leaving age to be successful, ministers will be heavily dependent on teachers' willingness to flex and adapt and, put bluntly, work harder in more difficult conditions.
Green suggests that the government would do well to find out what teachers feel would recompense them for the changes they'll have to make to their professional practice.
If nothing is done, he warns, "all these factors add up to the same thing – a poorer quality experience and level of opportunities for young people. There is the danger that schools will become not the hoped-for platform. for development, encouragement and inspiration, but instead a 'holding' camp for a growing number of disengaged young people."
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