Keeping kids incarcerated: why the school leaving age shouldn’t be universal

Some students may benefit from leaving school earlier. Flickr/University of Denver

We claim that society’s most important investment is in the education of its people. But prescribing a school leaving age of 17 is not only uncomfortable for some but downright constraining for others.

Economics of schooling

In modern education policy, we focus solely on the economic returns from schooling without looking for the social and civic benefits. This is simply flawed. The principal author of this narrative is the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) with its relentless attention to the neoliberal discourse.

Neoliberalism, with its emphasis on efficiency and international competitiveness, is thought to contribute to the economic health of the nation.

It leads, inexorably, to state control of the ways in which educational enterprises may function, presumably to the benefit of the state. What is good for the state is good for its citizens.

Evidence review

But for some young people there is no inclination to stay longer and the evidence is not at all clear that those extra years will result in greater employability or economic benefits.

A recent study of economic returns to schooling across 28 countries found that on average those who stay in school earn 5% more, suggesting that education is a good investment and that there is a positive relationship between the education of a working individual and his or her subsequent earnings and productivity – a seductive argument.

But what factors are at work here – the years spent in school or the abilities of those being measured?

Do they sufficiently account for differences in the school population and thus a corresponding variance in returns?

And do they take account of local contexts and conditions?

Individuals matter

Not everyone is academically inclined enough to graduate. Wikimedia Commons

A compelling report by labour market economist, Alfred Dockery looked at the benefits of additional years of schooling for those Australian young people who may not be well-suited to further education.

He argues that policies around increased retention are based upon the superior outcomes for those completing schooling relative to those who leave early.

Among his findings, he suggested that the expected return to additional years of schooling is not constant but increases with the ability or academic inclination of the individual.

He warned it was “dangerous to paint all young people with the same brush” adding that there “are some young people who are simply not well-suited to the schooling environment, either in terms of their individual preferences or in terms of the benefits that they can expect to gain.”

Dockery’s findings are symptomatic of the difficulties and challenges that dog the literature on returns from schooling and the presumption that if every student stays until they are 17 then it will loose its positional good.

Policies that suggest international and global solutions for everyone are unrealistic.

Using average results based upon returns to compulsory schooling infers that similar returns will apply to students who would otherwise have left early.

Hating school

A report by University of Western Sydney’s Margaret Vickers in 2007 found the most common reason students gave for early leaving, prior to the raising of the school leaving age, was directly related to their negative experiences of school. This was linked with poor relations with their teachers and their peers.

Many young people who label themselves as “not good at school”, would do better to understand as “not good at doing school as defined by the school itself” particularly with its emphasis in the senior years on a competitive academic curriculum.

Unfortunately, the narrative associated with young people in the context of compelling them to remain at school revolves around the notion that it is the young people who need to be “fixed”.

Social geography

Furthermore, the development of the policy takes little account of the varying sites of schooling.

Social geography is clearly also a determining factor in school attainment. In Australian Social Trends 2008, it was put that “the range of subjects and levels of study available to students living in rural and remote areas is often more limited than for those living in the city.”

In addition, people living in rural and remote areas “may encounter considerable difficulties in accessing educational institutions”.

And the socio-economic conditions for families and the resources to which they have access also play their part.

This year Australian Social Trends observed that “there is some argument that the distribution of engaged and achieving students is linked to the better resourcing of some schools over others and the public and parental perceptions of particular schools and sectors”.

Indeed, there are many other factors along with the ability to contribute good returns from further years of schooling often associated with socio-economic status including parental expectations; sound material conditions for living (family employment, housing, freedom from drugs and alcohol); students’ perceptions of self-worth.

Without investment in these factors compulsion may not provide the desired economic outcomes.

Alternatives to school

Economic outcomes are not the only ones that we would wish for from schooling and increasingly, there has been a “sidelining” of the social purposes of education.

The spaces for seriously attending to the social returns from schooling are progressively closed down; that is, unless the community decides to act and include the social along with the economic.

I agree with Dockery’s argument that the objective of policy should be to “ensure there are alternative pathways and institutional arrangements available to meet the varying needs, abilities and preferences of young people.”

So instead of a universal school leaving age, what about an alternative policy that promotes inclusion and that has a regard for young people who are marginalised and disenchanted with schooling?

Re-engaging students

The question then becomes one of what kind of schooling would be attractive and engaging for young people?

School systems in Australia should look to successful social enterprises that seek to support young people by facilitating dialogue, mentoring, and coaching them and engaging them in opportunities that respect them as young adults with their own feelings and emotions.

Many such services assist in the teaching of life skills and promote young people as functioning civil-minded members of our society rather than as aberrant and “at risk”.

Bringing about major systemic change that is designed to re-engage marginalised young people in schooling or through alternative enterprises as a social rather than economic measure is a significant challenge and a costly one.

We need local solutions to local problems, imagination and flexibility, not incarceration in schools with the assumption that more of the same is better.

We also need to ensure that schools are both ready for and able to cater for those young people who are already disengaged and marginalised and for whom schooling has not been a satisfying experience.