Ambitious targets have been set to increase the number of young people in further and higher education, Britain is facing growing economic competition, and the need for highly-skilled workers has never been greater. Yet fewer 16-year-olds are choosing to stay on at school or college. There is something wrong, somewhere.
The survey by the UK Heads of Careers Services, published last week, showed only 81 per cent of 16-year-olds continued into some form of education or training last year compared with 83 per cent in 1994. There was also a fall in numbers staying on full-time at school or college.
The figures caused some scratching of heads. With the current emphasis on the importance of education and training, they seem perverse.
Some possible explanations seem more obvious than others. John Yates, former principal careers officer for Cheshire, who edited the report, reflects a common view that the recent slight upturn in the economy may be partly responsible. Many 16-year-olds traditionally have one eye on the labour market. To them, a wage packet is an attractive option and if a healthier economy creates more job opportunities, education and training take the back seat.
The continuing squeeze on public spending, with cuts in maintenance and transport grants for young people could also be partly responsible. But the figures showed the number of young people dropping out altogether - neither in education nor training nor work - had also increased.
"It is worrying if what we want is a high-skill, high-added value economy, " says Mr Yates. "However, it is also worrying from the social point of view because it means increasing numbers of young people opting out of the traditional education and training arena and into the black economy and possibly into alienation and crime."
Of course, the figures cover only one year and may be a blip. Better data collection is also a possible explanation, suggests Pamela Robinson, senior research fellow in the school of education at Manchester University. However, she says: "It rings a warning bell because if anything the rate should be going up."
The figures do not reveal students' reasons for dropping out, and the case for further research in this area must be strong. But there may be some clues in a survey carried out by the department of education at Keele University, (TES, March 29) which showed that secondary pupils' interest in schools and respect for teachers is dwindling. They may suggest that if pupils hold education, and their teachers, in low esteem, they are less likely to opt for more when they have the chance to quit.
According to Alan Parker, education officer of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, the roots of the current problem go back to when education was changing from a system based on the comprehensive ideal to one based on the market philosophy of choice and diversity, heralded by Kenneth Baker in 1988.
Official encouragement of a more competitive atmosphere, with the advent of open admission policies, performance tables and grant-maintained schools has, suggests Mr Parker, created a climate in which some pupils feel less motivated. Further, teachers have also suffered worsening conditions and dwindling public respect. Add to that the increased emphasis on academic performance created by the national curriculum restrictions on GCSE coursework and, perhaps, you have a recipe for the disaffection of many young people.
If this view is valid, it would lend weight to the proposals by Sir Ron Dearing for greater opportunities for vocational courses for pupils as young as 14.
"What we had seen as a continuing upward trend appears to have come to an end," says Mr Parker. "It is worrying because clearly something has gone wrong. It may be saying more about what is happening in schools than about post-16 opportunities."