An age-old dilemma of when to let them go

9th November 2012 at 00:00
Raising the school leaving age may cause problems for young people and society. It was ever thus, finds Adi Bloom

Government plans to compel all pupils to remain in education or training until the age of 18 could well lead to absenteeism, funding shortages and young people struggling to find appropriate courses, according to new research.

Education historians at the Institute of Education, University of London say that the proposals will be further complicated by the plan to replace GCSEs with an English Baccalaureate Certificate (EBC) from 2015.

From next summer, English pupils will be required to remain in education and training until the end of the academic year in which they turn 17. From 2015, they will have to continue in school until their 18th birthday.

But the education historians, who have been monitoring preparations for the reform and comparing them with those made 40 years ago, when the school leaving age was last raised, anticipate significant problems. Their paper on the subject has recently been published in the British Educational Research Journal.

"Many children stayed away from school in 1972 and a similar problem is likely to recur," says Tom Woodin, one of the authors of the paper.

Woodin points out that when the leaving age was raised in 1972, pupils were officially obliged to remain in school until the end of the summer term, well after the end of exams. This led to mass absenteeism, with more than half of final-year pupils staying away in some schools. As a result, an earlier summer leaving date was introduced in 1976. "The government may be forced to make similar adjustments in the years to come," Woodin says.

He and his colleagues also fear that a significant minority of those forced to stay on post-16 may struggle to find an appropriate course. And they predict that this problem could persist for many years.

In their paper, they point out that the decision to extend the school leaving age to 16 was taken in 1964, eight years before it was implemented. This allowed considerable time to develop an appropriate curriculum for pupils who would otherwise have left at 15. There was widespread concern "not simply to add an extra year, but rather to rethink the nature of education in the face of considerable social and economic changes," the academics say.

But they suggest that the exam reforms proposed by the government this autumn could make it difficult for many of today's pupils to find appropriate education or training options.

The planned EBC is expected to be tougher than the GCSE exams that it will replace. As a result, many pupils may believe they have failed it. The government will therefore need to develop a post-16 education that will meet the needs of these pupils, the researchers believe.

The authors also point to other potential problems that may result from raising the school-leaving age. A National Audit Office report, published last year, suggests that the Department for Education has underestimated by #163;100 million the annual costs to local authorities of "tracking, engaging and supporting" additional pupils.

And, they say, pilot schemes across England have been hindered by a lack of strategic planning: "Local authorities are in the difficult situation of being given more responsibility for promoting 16-19 education - bringing together partners, identifying gaps, monitoring young people - but without the power and resources that they need to coordinate the efforts. Many local authorities are now wary of challenging schools that have become autonomous."

Different authorities will also be affected by the changes to different degrees. In Barnsley, for example, only 85 per cent of 16- and 17-year-olds are still in education. In Hertfordshire, by contrast, that figure is 95 per cent.

And the researchers anticipate a number of other, unforeseen consequences of the reform, with some long-term problems ultimately bequeathed to successive generations.

"Developing long-term quality options for 16- to 18-year-olds will prove to be a not-inconsiderable challenge," they conclude.

When considering the current decision to increase the school-leaving age in a historical context, it is vital to take broader social conditions into account, the researchers say.

They point out that leaving-age reforms have taken place in a range of diverse social, economic and educational contexts.

When the school-leaving age was raised to 14 after the Education Act of 1918, Britain was a colonial power, dominated by the manufacturing industry and acutely visible inequalities, they point out.

From 1944, the introduction of the welfare state and the promise of secondary education for all began to cut away at the extremes of poverty. The school leaving age was raised to 15 in 1947.

In 1972, when it was increased to 16, the period of post-war economic growth was coming to an end. In 1976, James Callaghan, then Labour prime minister, highlighted the changing educational climate by asserting that education should respond to the needs of the economy and to perceived skills gaps in the workplace.

"Education would increasingly be called upon to help manage the problem of rising youth unemployment," the researchers say.

Now, it is against a climate of global instability that the school leaving age is to be raised again: to 17 in 2013 and to 18 in 2015.

The academics say: "We must tread with caution in attempting to connect the various moves to prolong compulsory schooling across these wildly different historical spheres."

Useful links

Woodin, T., McCulloch, G. and Cowan, S., "Raising the participation age in historical perspective: policy learning from the past?", British Educational Research Journal (2012).


British Educational Research Journal.


Tom Woodin, Institute of Education, University of London.


Gary McCulloch, Institute of Education, University of London.


Steven Cowan, Institute of Education, University of London.


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