The issue - School-leaving age

10th September 2010 at 01:00
How long should pupils be compelled to remain in the classroom? The argument has been raging for a century or so

In 1910, plans to raise the school-leaving age to 14 created a stir. Educationalists argued that children who left at 12 usually ended up in dead-end jobs, so keeping them in education made sense. But many young people found it hard to see the benefits of another two years in school.

A century on, the numbers have changed but the arguments are the same. Will raising the school-leaving age to 18 by 2015 lead to more opportunities and less unemployment? Or to disillusioned pupils and a surge in truancy?

"It may not actually do any of those things," says Dr Nicola Sheldon of the History of Education Society. She points out that each time the leaving age has risen - to 14 in 1918, to 15 in 1947, and to 16 in 1972 - hopes and fears have been dashed in equal measure. "It has always been suggested that truancy will increase, but that's never happened," she says. "On the other hand, young people's job prospects haven't necessarily improved. That seems more linked to the economy."

Will the next shift have greater impact? Only if there is a radical overhaul of the curriculum, says Professor Alan Smithers of Buckingham University. "Those who leave at 16 do so for a reason," he says. "There's no point making them stay unless you're going to offer something different."

Currently, 68 per cent of the UK's 16 to 18-year-olds remain in full-time education, and a further 15 per cent receive some kind of training. These figures are better than they used to be, but still below many developed countries. In 1910, Germany, with a leaving age of 18 in some areas, was held up as an example. It still is - along with countries like Hungary, Belgium and the Netherlands, where education, at least part-time, is compulsory until 18.

But Professor Smithers thinks there may be better role models. "Some countries have a leaving age of 16 or lower, but very high staying-on rates. Instead of relying on compulsion, we should look at how these countries make education attractive."

The answer is usually a vocational system that involves employers, focuses on skills, and offers a clear route to employment. "There needs to be as strong a link between vocational courses and employment as there is between A-levels and university," says Professor Smithers.

Dr Sheldon agrees and says lessons can be learned from the introduction of "technical education" that accompanied the 1947 changes, but foundered due to poor funding. "This time," she says, "it's important that things are done properly."

It is doubtful that will happen, though. The proposed raised leaving age should survive the cuts, and a demographic dip in the 16-18 age group will help schools cope. But it is unlikely that fresh qualifications will be on offer by 2013, when the changes are phased in, and the academic and vocational mix of the new Diplomas may not appeal to disillusioned pupils.

The new legislation could still have an impact. "Teachers won't be able to ignore difficult Year 11 pupils, thinking they'll be out of the system soon," says Dr Sheldon. "Colleges won't be able to say that because someone is 17, it's up to them what they do. There will be a new sense of responsibility. History shows that a change in the law brings a change in attitudes."

An upward trend

1918: The Fisher Act raises the standard leaving age from 12 to 14. Plans for part-time education until 16 fall by the wayside.

1947: The leaving age is raised to 15 and coincides with a booming youth job market, leading to complaints of a labour shortage.

1972: The failing economy prompts rise to 16. Fears of more truancy prove unfounded but there is little immediate impact on unemployment.

2007: The Government moots raising the leaving age to 18, phasing in the change between 2013 and 2015.

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