Bettered by the Greeks
Britain has been left behind in the staying-on stakes by a country whose school leaving age is 14.
Greece has 93 per cent of its 15- to 19-year-olds in education, while the UK has 79 per cent, according to the 2006-07 figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
The figures call into question the Government's decision to raise the age for compulsory education or training to 18. Under plans in the Education and Skills Bill, pupils beginning their secondary education this year would be the first cohort obliged to continue at school, college or in work-based training until they are at least 17. The 2010 intake would continue until the age of 18.
The OECD, which compares the education systems and economies of 30 countries, said the evidence suggested that school leaving age did not strongly affect further education enrolment rates, with several countries having low leaving ages and high enrolments or vice versa.
Its report said: "An analysis of the participation rates by level of education and single year of age shows that there is no close relationship between the end of compulsory education and the decline in enrolment rates."
After 16, fewer students in any OECD country stay on, regardless of school leaving age. But 11 countries still have 90 per cent or more 17-year-olds in education, many without compulsion.
Greece's rise up the tables from 24th place in 1995 to second place in 2006 (Britain lags near the bottom) has been down to increased funding - partly through the European Union - investment in vocational training and 1990s school reforms, which combined stricter, more frequent exams with greater opportunities for university study. The controversial reforms sparked occupations at 1,500 schools.
Paul Mackney, associate director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, said he remains opposed to raising the leaving age. He cites Plato, the Greek philosopher, who said: "Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind."
He said money should not be diverted from adult education into forcing teenagers to stay on.
Richard Williams, chief executive of the educational charity Rathbone, which is sponsoring an inquiry into drop-out rates, said a key issue was the lack of work-based options for those not equipped for level two studies.
He said: "The young people (we observed) in workshops came across as much more motivated for achieving positive outcomes than they are often assumed to be in public policy. They have a normal set of aspirations: to get a job, a stable family life, relationships and so on.
"We don't think the requirement to raise the participation age will have much impact on how they see what it is they should be doing."
A Department for Children, Schools and Families spokesman said: "We are confident that raising the participation age will help galvanise the entire education system towards ensuring every young person remains in some form of education or training until they are 18.
"We know increased qualification levels mean increased earnings and it is the most disadvantaged whom we expect to benefit from these changes. But it's not just about raising the participation age. It's also about ensuring that there are options out there for everyone."