RAISING THE school-leaving age to 18 is far from a radical idea. In 1944, Rab Butler, the Conservative education minister, said that he hoped it would eventually become the age all pupils finished school.
In recent years, Tony Blair and other ministers have said that they want reforms to exams that would "effectively" lift the leaving age. But only now are steps being taken to make it compulsory.
As The TES revealed in November, the proposal was adopted by Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, last year. Officials are working on producing a Green Paper by the spring, setting out how they can legislate to achieve the goal by 2013. It is seen as a central policy for Gordon Brown, the man almost certain to become the next Prime Minister.
You can understand why spin doctors might think it a faultless proposal: it would be a historic reform, which would provide education or training for an extra 320,000 or so teenagers in each school year.
It would also show that Mr Johnson can work well with Mr Brown, neatly positioning him to become his future deputy.
But historical precedent, and feet-dragging by businesses, suggest it will be far from straightforward. The last such change - raising the leaving age from 15 to 16 in 1972 - did not run smoothly. There were false starts in the 1950s and 1960s.
When it was finally implemented, school buildings were not big enough to cope and there was a lack of clarity over what the extra year was for.
Many serving teachers still "bear the scars" of that period, according to Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teachers' union. She is concerned the change to 18 could be seen as a stick to beat already disaffected pupils.
In class, it could mean a "rise in low-level disruption and violence", she says.
However, the main aim is not really to raise the school-leaving age, but to make it compulsory for all 16- to 18-year-olds to be in some form of education or training, which could be work-based. For example, any of the 7,730 16- to 18-year-olds employed by McDonald's who study for in-house maths and English tests equivalent to GCSEs, might meet the requirement.
John Dunford, Association of School and College Leaders general secretary, says schools would play a role in providing the extra teaching, as part of the planned 14 to 19 diplomas. FE colleges are likely to be the most affected, however, not just because they will need to accept more teenagers on courses, but also through their involvement in job-based learning.
The motives for the move - which could cost up to pound;1 billion - amount to more than just leadership ambitions and good headlines. Nine out of 10 of the UK's 6 million unskilled jobs are expected to disappear in the next decade. Educationists and industrialists, summoned to a breakfast meeting at 11 Downing Street last week, were told that extra training for over-16s is essential.
All 16- and 17-year-olds in work are already entitled to paid time off for training, yet just 13 per cent actually take it. "Too many young people refuse to train and employers don't encourage them," said a Department for Education and Skills official.
This week, employers condemned the number of 16-year-olds opting out, but stopped short of offering help.
John Cridland, the Confederation of British Industry deputy director-general, said they would only back a leaving age of 18 if it "ensured that young people gained the qualifications, particularly in numeracy and literacy, needed in the world of work".
Claire Donovan, of EEF, which represents 600 manufacturing companies, said there was little they might do to assist. The teenagers they employ are on apprenticeships and therefore are not among the 52 per cent of 18-year-olds not in education and training. "Employers won't welcome it if they are expected to take on teenagers who have failed up to this point and are not interested in learning on the job," she said.
For FE colleges, funding will be crucial. Paul Mackney, the University and College Union joint general secretary, has already seen resources transferred from adults, who make up 80 per cent of students, to 16- to 18-year-olds.
He said: "The question is, when is it best for students to be in college? We think it is when they decide they will benefit, rather than when someone makes them go. As Plato said, 'Knowledge acquired under compulsion has no hold on the mind'."
Geoff Barton, Comment, page 26
Year 1880 Age 10