Greece slides to top of poll
Britain has been overtaken in the numbers of students staying on at 16 by a country whose education leaving age is 14-and-a-half.
Greece has 93 per cent of its 15 to 19-year-olds in education, according to the latest figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
The latest UK figure, for 2006-07, is 79 per cent. In Scotland, the number of school leavers who stay on in education or take up a training place is even lower at 61 per cent - but if the 22 per cent who leave school for a job is added, the number who end up in "positive destinations" rises to 86 per cent. The figures have sparked renewed debate in England about the decision of the Westminster Government to raise the age for compulsory education or training to 18. The Scottish Government rejects the idea.
Under plans in the education and skills bill for England, pupils beginning their secondary education this year would be the first to be 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 36 countries, said the evidence suggested the education leaving age did not strongly affect 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 leaving age. But there are 11 countries with 90 per cent or more 17-year-olds in education without compulsion, ranging from Belgium to Slovenia.
Greece's rise up the tables has come from increased funding, partly though the European Union, investment in vocational training and school reforms during the 1990s which combined stricter, more frequent exams with expanded opportunities for studying at the state universities. The testing reforms were controversial enough at the time to have sparked occupations at 1,500 schools.
Paul Mackney, associate director of the Institute of Adult Continuing Education, says he remains opposed to raising the leaving age - citing Plato, the Greek philosopher, who said: "Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind."
He says money should not be diverted from adult education into forcing people to stay on after 16.
Richard Williams, chief executive of the educational charity Rathbone, which is sponsoring an inquiry into why teenagers drop out, said a major issue for the UK was the lack of work-based options for those not equipped for the level two studies involved in apprenticeships. He said his inquiry showed that young people had a normal set of aspirations: a job, a stable family life, and relationships. "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 spokesman from the Department of Children, Schools and Families in London said: "We are confident that raising the participation age will help to galvanise the entire education system towards ensuring that every young person remains in some form of education or training until they are 18.
"We know that 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 and that is why we are increasing the numbers of apprenticeships and offering the new diploma."