The United Kingdom has stumbled in its attempt to reach tenth place in the global table for post-16 staying-on rates. Latest figures reveal it is also struggling to meet its objective, set in 2001, of overtaking the Czech Republic.
The Learning and Skills Council set the target to climb higher by 2010, predicting that it would require 90 per cent of teenagers to stay in education after GCSEs.
John Harwood, then the LSC's chief executive, told the Association of Colleges conference in 2001: "Our target is to get up to 10th place, which is currently occupied by the Czech Republic, by 2010."
At the time, Britain - which then had 71 per cent of teenagers staying on - lay fourth from bottom in the list of 30 countries.
Now, with just two years to go, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's latest figures (for 2006) show the UK third from bottom: only 70 per cent continuing studies post-16.
But 2006 may be something of a blip - in 2005 the figure was 78 per cent and last year it was nearly 79 per cent. But in the meantime, the Czech Republic has increased its share of students staying on from 83 per cent to 90 per cent and taken fourth place in the world rankings, despite compulsory schooling ending at 15.
Mark Corney, a consultant who has written a report on the likely effect of raising the age of compulsory education or training, said the UK had made mistakes which prevented it from climbing the OECD tables in recent years.
He said: "We don't have strong apprenticeships. We allow jobs without training. We forget that young people want jobs at 16 and especially at 17."
The UK's failure to improve so far may be because so many leave at 17, Mr Corney said, since it is common for the one in four teenagers who fail to get five good GCSEs to take a one-year level 2 course in FE (which has equivalent status) and then leave to get work.
He said that would be addressed by the Government's plans ensuring that teenagers would either get training on the job if they worked for more than 20 hours, or oblige them to continue full-time courses.
"The real issue is that the Government has to got make sure it has got proper support for the last five or 10 per cent, to ensure that it is so motivating that they will come," Mr Corney said.
The council this week distanced itself from its former chief executive's ambitions. Rob Wye, the national director for young people, said: "It has never been an official target to overtake the Czech Republic in participation rates for 16- to 18-year-olds. But as they remain one of the highest participating nations in the OECD, the comparison is relevant to our ambition to meet the learning needs of all young people."
Mr Wye said the participation rate was now at its highest ever level and that work needed to continue to ensure there was provision for all students up to the age of 18 by 2015.