RAISING THE age at which teenagers can legally quit education has become an increasingly attractive idea to politicians.
Both Alan Johnson, Education Secretary, and the Prime Minister have suggested that making students stay in school or training until they are 18, instead of 16, could help ensure that Britain has the skilled workers it needs in a competitive global economy.
But what evidence is there that forcing reluctant teenagers to stay in education makes any real difference to their career prospects?
Perhaps an historical anomaly spotted by researchers from the Institute of Social and Economic Research in Essex could provide a clue.
They recalled that between 1962 and 1997 older pupils were allowed to leave school a term early, in the Easter holiday of their last year, instead of the summer.
Only those born between September 1 and January 31 were eligible for the early exit. They could return to take exams in the summer if they wished, and several chose to continue in education after their break.
The researchers amassed figures on the 1962-1997 pupils to see how much of a difference it made to their results and careers if they left school early.
They found that, up until 1974, the summer-leavers performed slightly better than the Easter-leavers.
However, in 1974, when the legal school-leaving age was raised from 15 to 16, staying on until the summer had "strong effects" on results.
Across the whole period studied, researchers found that pupils who left in the summer were 12 per cent more likely than the Easter-leavers to continue in education the following year, and had about 2 per cent higher wages.
The researchers said that lifting the school leaving age to 16 had been significant because pupils then had the chance to take CSEs, O-levels and GCSEs.
It suggested that it is not enough simply to keep students in schools longer, but that they must have time to complete a qualification.
"In short, exam dates matter," they said. In addition, the researchers found that increasing the time that pupils stayed on at school had a more significant impact on girls than it did on boys.
'The Long-term Impacts of Compulsory Schooling' by Emilia del Bono and Fernando Galindo-Rueda is at www.iser.essex.ac.uk
RAISING THE BAR
The compulsory school leaving age in Britain has been raised many times since its introduction 137 years ago:
1870 The Elementary Education Act introduced compulsory education for children under 13. Elected school boards could create local by-laws to require attendance and fine parents of children who did not attend.
1883 The act was extended to blind and deaf children, who previously had no means of accessing an official education.
1918 The Compulsory Education Act enforced education for all youngsters aged five to 14 years old. It is often known as the Fisher Act, because it was devised by Herbert Fisher.
1947 The minimum leaving age was raised to 15.
1972 The school leaving age was raised to 16.
In November 2006, Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, said that the school leaving age should be increased to 18. He said that it was unacceptable today to see a 16-year-old in a dead end job as it was to see a 14-year-old employed half a century ago.
But he did not specifically state that young people would remain in secondary school. Instead, he suggested they that could continue their education until the age of 18 through further education colleges or work-based training.