In many ways, we expect young people to complete their education at the worst imaginable point in their lives. Okay, so their brains are still young and supple, but everything else is against them. You've got the ranging hormones, which makes it quite difficult to concentrate on anything in the same room as other young people of the compatible sex. You've got this weird status where you pass as an adult in some situations but are treated as a child in others. And then there is rebellion.
Teenage rebellion isn't entirely due to the hormones; older people keep pushing you around. Older people who, as you increasingly realise, aren't very much smarter than you are. Teenagers are really quite rational beings – beings with less experience and know-how than adults of course - and rebellion is usually rational too, in context. Adults who wish to help them need to address the context; teenagers who behave themselves are not more rational than the others, they just want different things.
Anyway, it is at the peak of all this that you are expected to decide what you are going to do for a job and pursue the appropriate qualifications.
Universal education is one of the best political ideas anyone ever had after democracy. Tools for thinking, knowledge and understanding empower us and enrich our lives. But school qualifications aren't terribly useful for anything. Nobody above the age of about twenty needs more than the basics – but they do need to keep learning. If you want to be a lawyer, you need to study law at university – and you needed your school qualifications to get in. If you want to be a hair-dresser, you need to be trained in hairdressing and you may need your school qualifications to get onto the appropriate course. And if you want to live a full and productive life, you need to keep on taking in and analysing information, finding new ways to solve problems and generally furnishing the dark and dusty shelves of your noggin with items of interest, incite and beauty. You can't get a GCSE in that.
However, school qualifications are a very useful political tool. The electorate care about education and qualifications are one way in which a government attempts to prove that they are doing a good job. Every year the exam results are getting better and better, so clearly everything is going well! When folks begin to doubt this, the government introduce more tests in order to increase the volume of evidence for their efficacy.
So the way things are done have very little to do with the needs of the individual student. What a young person needs is a good solid education, but that is a matter of quality as opposed to the time it takes. I don't know how long it does take, but I left school at fifteen because of illness and I'd say I had enough; my education wasn't over, but that level of tutoring, supervision and coercion had no longer been necessary for some time. After that, young people need to get the qualifications and training that they need to do whatever it is they want to do next. Not for the rest of their lives.
It's not only that it is some decades since a time when most people expected to get a job and keep doing it until they retired – I reckon most people still stick to roughly the same work for most of their working lives. It's that adolescence is a stage of identity crisis which can continue well into one's twenties. Even then, things can change and people need to adapt. The very idea that we can get all our learning out of the way in one go at one stage of life is both naïve and somewhat tragic.
The primary objective of school education should be to give young people the skills and motivation to learn. If you keep talking at them for years on end, some of it might sink in before the law says they're allowed to go, but if you teach them how to learn, they will keep doing it on their own steam. The most valuable thing a school can give to a child and that can't be measured. This, together with a culture, as opposed to a catchphrase, of lifelong learning, would mean that whatever happens, people could dip into education and training when the need or desire arose.
But this wouldn't provide very many objective statistics – at least not any time soon – by which we might judge a government's investment in education. So instead, they're increasing the length of compulsory education. A person will now be able to marry, have children and be obliged to pay tax before they are allowed to leave school or college. Having bought more time, there will be more exam results to boast of. And it will all look very good, whether it serves any useful purpose or not.