The school leaving age: what can we learn from history?

As the Government plans to raise the school leaving age to 18, Nicola Sheldon explores whether history indicates this is a wise idea

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Why does the Government want to raise the school leaving age?
By autumn 2008, it seems likely the Government will have legislated for a new school leaving age of 18, which will come into force from 2013–15. The absence rate for year 11 pupils (aged 15–16) is currently over 10 per cent and in “schools facing challenging circumstances” even higher – leading some to argue that the leaving age should be reduced to 14 from the current 16.

They claim the legislation will result simply in ‘warehousing’ truculent youth rather than producing the skilled workers of tomorrow.

Participation rates in post-16 education and training have stalled since the early 1990s. A new leaving age of 18 can be seen as a ‘final effort’ to include the reluctant 23 per cent of 16–18-year-olds who don’t pursue any education or training once they leave school. It is probable that this final few will be fairly resistant to legal penalties for non-attendance – so is it a desirable or realistic policy to pursue?

What are the precedents for this?
Governments have traditionally exercised both caution and pragmatism over the school leaving age – often delaying implementation for several years after legislation. In 1900, the Board of Education wanted all children to stay on at school until the age of 14, but they still allowed the majority to leave at 13 or even 12 to start manual labouring jobs under local byelaws.

Poor working-class parents did not see education beyond the basic ‘3 Rs’ as relevant to their children’s future employment, desirable though many felt it was in theory.  Debate among educationists at the start of the 20th  century focused on the perceived problem of boys leaving school and going into ‘dead-end’ jobs, often unskilled work but better paid than an apprenticeship. It was feared such boys ended up as unemployable.

Concerns were also focused on the moral effects of leaving school early. Middle-class critics claimed that young working-class boys and girls who enjoyed their leisure on the streets, in the music hall and picture houses and in the pub, were growing up too quickly, outside of adult control and without the preparation they could get in school to become good citizens.

Why has raising the school leaving age always been controversial?
Proposals to extend the years of compulsory schooling have always attracted loud and influential opposition. The 1918 Fisher Act after the First World War brought in a standard leaving age for all of 14, against opposition from some employers and many parents. The Government had legislated for part-time continuation education for young workers up to age 16, but this was not well-supported by employers or by young people, and continuation schools fell by the wayside.

In 1947, when the leaving age of 15 was implemented, critics claimed the postwar world had neither the buildings nor the trained teachers to cope with the extra pupils, who would then vote with their feet and truant.

In 1972, when compulsory schooling was raised to the current age of 16, teaching unions, chief police officers and even prominent politicians such as Nigel Lawson argued there would be a surge of truancy and a rise in the juvenile crime rate if young people were made to stay at school a year longer.

A wider reason for opposition has been rejection of the Government’s argument that increasing the school leaving age would address Britain’s economic needs and reduce youth unemployment. The unemployment of the 1930s convinced governments that young people should stay on in school up to 15, but the implementation of this change was delayed by the Second World War until 1947.

This meant the change coincided with a period of buoyant demand for youth labour and complaints of labour shortages from employers. The rise to age 16 in 1972 was designed to address the British economy’s failing competitiveness, but coincided with a rise in staying on at school by 15-year-olds as employment opportunities receded.

It appears that qualifications can improve individual outcomes but they do not influence the youth labour market. Critics today have claimed that another extension of the school leaving age will have no effect on job opportunities for those with the lowest levels of skills, who leave at 16 now.

Will the policy work?
The lack of any perceptible jump in overall truancy rates after each successive raising of the leaving age would suggest the law provides a strong ‘signal’ which most of the population soon accepts. Despite the dire predictions, the additional year of schooling introduced in 1947 and 1972 did not cause revolution in the classroom or on the streets.

However, each successive change in the law has also been accompanied by grand (and potentially costly) plans to ensure the extra years in education produce a better-qualified workforce and ultimately reduce unemployment, delinquency and crime. These elusive goals have proved much more difficult to achieve via extra years of schooling.

What does history teach us?
History suggests that truancy and school attendance are not the main problems associated with raising the school leaving age, even though the majority of time spent discussing this year’s Education and Skills Bill in committee concerned problems enforcing attendance.

While it is relatively easy to pass a bill into law, it is far from simple to secure the expected gains in skills for those students compelled to stay on longer. This tends to undermine parental and youth support for education and training, particularly among the least enthusiastic learners. As the current plans concern just that group – the 23 per cent of 16–18s who currently choose not to continue in any form of education or training – it is even more important that what is on offer is new and closely linked to better job prospects.

At the start of the 20th century, those most likely to leave school early were not the least able, but the most able, who achieved the ‘leaving standard’ by age 13. They left school due to family poverty as their wages were needed to supplement low parental incomes.

At the start of the 21st century, few young people are in this position, but many of those who leave at 16 are making the same calculation – “what will I gain from leaving?” as against “what might I gain from staying on?”

Unlike in Germany, where vocational education has long been tied into employment sectors and the chance of a job, there has not been a strong tradition by employers in the UK of nurturing young people’s skills within the education system. Training has usually been undertaken on-the-job after a young person has left school.

Many attempts have been made to improve the status of vocational education. In 1947, great hopes were entertained that new county colleges could provide the ‘lost momentum’ for working-class youth who failed to get into grammar schools. Technical education was seen as the panacea for older children whose talents lay in the practical not the academic.

However, technical schools proved expensive as their equipment needed updating regularly and it also proved difficult to select at age 11 for this type of specialist vocational education.

Secondary moderns, cheap and cheerful, were seen as more cost-effective for those failing the 11-plus and so only a handful of technical schools were built. By the 1970s, the problem was seen as a qualifications issue. Since those who gained O-levels (predecessors to GCSEs) tended to stay on at school to do A-levels, the answer was to provide a qualification for those with lower abilities to encourage them to stay on as well – the result, the Certificate of Extended Education (CEE), never caught on and was quietly dropped.

Politicians know that the curriculum, whether college or employment-based, is even more important than in the past for the group of hard-to-reach young people they are now targeting. Over the past 20 years, the vocational curriculum has been revised several times over, to the intense frustration of teachers and students and to the utter confusion of many employers.

In future, effectively co-ordinating mixed ‘job and training’ schemes could prove challenging. The use of legal compulsion is also fraught with difficulty, not least because it is difficult to devise a penalty for non-attendance which is not damaging to the ultimate goal of engaging the young person willingly and positively in learning.

Historical precedent implies that most will comply and attend school, college or training centre. There will be truants but there will also be more official supervision by local authorities and teachers or trainers because students cannot just opt out of the system.

However, the real question is whether this Government will do any better than its predecessors in fulfilling its promises about the quality of what’s on offer when young people do turn up.

Three lessons from history
1. Governments have raised the school leaving age successively through the 20th century without serious resistance. So the current change shouldn’t increase levels of truancy and anti-social behaviour.

2. The effects of raising the school leaving age on young people’s prospects in the job market have been unclear. Education levels have risen but the youth employment market is linked more to changes in the economy than qualifications.

3. Governments in the past failed to ‘follow through’ by providing vocational education of sufficient quality to convince early leavers to stay on after the age of legal compulsion. This time, they are aiming to keep 100% in education and training post-16, so the stakes are high.

Nicola Sheldon is currently a post-doctoral research fellow of St Hilda’s College, Oxford, where she specialises in historical research into policies on school attendance