show that in the 24 local authorities that responded, the number of winter leavers rose to 2,898 this year. This is an increase from 2,823 in 2013-14, according to figures from Skills Development Scotland (SDS).
In Edinburgh and West Dunbartonshire, the number of winter leavers rose by more than 40 per cent in a year. In Highland, it went up by 50 per cent, and in Angus and North Ayrshire by about 30 per cent.
In Scotland, unlike in England, young people whose birthday falls between October and February are able to leave at the end of the winter term of the school year in which they turn 16. The statutory leaving date for other pupils when they turn 16 is 31 May.
Young people who take the opportunity to go in the winter have traditionally been significantly more at risk of becoming Neet (not in education, employment or training).
According to statistics published last December by SDS, only 77.3 per cent of the 2013-14 cohort of winter leavers moved into further education, employment or training, compared with 90.4 per cent of those who left at the end of the school year.
The same report by SDS also states that statutory winter leavers are "four times as likely to be reported as unemployed than a post-statutory leaver".
It had been hoped that the number of young people leaving after the winter term would decrease as opportunities to follow vocational routes within school increased. This was one of the central recommendations of the report by the Commission for Developing Scotland's Young Workforce, led by Sir Ian Wood, published in June last year. The Scottish government has made implementing its recommendations a priority.
In recent years, a number of new schemes such as Opportunities for All have aimed to help young people stay in school or to find them a college, training or job placement.
Danny Murphy, a senior teaching fellow at the University of Edinburgh's Moray House School of Education, said that local employment opportunities were one of the main reasons for a variation in the number of winter leavers, and that this could differ from year to year. He also stressed that it was too early to tell if the local authority and college responses to the Wood Commission's report were going to have an effect.
The Edinburgh Guarantee was introduced in 2011, promising every young person in the city the chance of a job, training or further education. It has contributed to a 10 per cent increase in the number of school-leavers taking those routes since then, and may also have contributed to the rise in winter leavers.
A spokeswoman for West Dunbartonshire said the council did not yet know the destinations of its leavers, but added that possible reasons for the increase could include an improvement in the local labour market.
In Glasgow, by contrast, the number of winter leavers has dropped significantly: 302 young people left this winter compared with 432 last year.
Councillor Stephen Curran, executive member for education and young people, said the city was seeing "a real shift change" with "more and more young people staying on for S5 and S6". "The figures prove that we are raising aspirations and expectations, with more of our children going on to education, training or employment," he said.
Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, said that many secondaries were "now able to offer a fuller range of more appropriate pathways for all our young people, in partnership with colleges and work placements".
But he added: "I think these figures would be a bit worrying, unless you know where they are going. I would like to think it is an indication of young people having more places to go."
Shona Struthers, chief executive of Colleges Scotland, said colleges had always been open to making provision for young people who had the potential to end up Neet. She said she expected the number of "disengaged" young people to fall as the Wood Commission's strategy was implemented.
A Scottish government spokesperson said it was committed to improving work and training opportunities for young people, and this was highlighted by its new youth employment strategy. "Modern apprenticeships are also a key element of our work to support young people into jobs, with more than 77,000 new opportunities created in the last three years. By 2020 we will have 30,000 new opportunities every year."
The spokesperson added: "As part of our Opportunities for All commitment for all 16- to 19-year-olds to have an offer of a place in learning and training, we have improved transition planning for young people prior to leaving school."
`Another year in school would be better'
Stephen Ross, headteacher at Craigroyston Community High School in Edinburgh, says his ambition is for all young people to remain in school until the end of S6. He notes that staying-on rates have improved from 56 per cent in 2013-14 to 86 per cent this year.
"In some other schools I had seen pupils encouraged to leave after S4 but a lot of them did not have the resilience or support at home to sustain a college place, and I think another year in school would be better for them," Mr Ross, pictured, says.
To make this possible, it has been necessary to adapt the curriculum. Craigroyston High's new vocational courses include dance, boat-building, mountain bike skills, early years education and childcare and automotive skills.
Some are delivered with the help of partners. Others are run by Edinburgh College, with lessons given either at school by visiting lecturers or on the college's campus.
Craigroyston High has also decided to put S4, S5 and S6 pupils into one group to allow for a more varied timetable and better cater to the needs of each student.