Around half of the 280 young people who this week quit West Lothian schools will go straight into work, ready to sacrifice their education for the lure of a job, cash and early entry into adult life.
Headteachers and the council say the local economy, fired by the Silicon Glen chip industry, is responsible. Many young workers have the potential to go on to Highers and further qualifications. Last year, 34 per cent of West Lothian leavers went into a job, against a Scottish average of 25 per cent.
Heads also believe pass rates are being damaged by the number of part-time jobs available after school, at weekends and during the holidays. A higher proportion of pupils work part-time and in holidays than anywhere else in Scotland. "This inevitably reduces the time allocated to academic study and revision and subsequently depresses attainment," the council warns.
The desperate search for work and cash is being blamed for pushing the council down the national league tables of performance. West Lothian schools are two percentage points below the national average for Higher passes.
Ross Martin, West Lothian's education convener, said: "This is a good thing in economic terms but from the education viewpoint we have to maintain the desire to keep learning and training. We have to maintain that balance."
All secondary heads have mentioned the increase in the numbers of young people taking jobs and the willingness of 16-year-olds to leave early. Kate Reid, head of educational development, said: "Some of these pupils who cut and run have to work. Parents need their income. There is a poverty element." Some also work to sustain their school courses.
West Lothian figures show large numbers of families in the lower socio-economic groups and officials say research shows there is sometimes less value on academic qualifications and lower expectations. Pressures are greater on children to go out to work.
A transient population, attracted by the rise in jobs, is further lowering performance. Pupils who move in during the school year appear to do less well.
The council has launched three pilot programmes to encourage 16-year-olds to stay on at school until the end of fifth year. The programmes combine modular courses, college-based tuition, seminars and work experience.
The most popular sectors for Christmas leavers continue to be manufacturing, followed by the construction industry, offices, shops and engineering.