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School's not out anymore: will raising the school leaving age change anything?

The increase in the leaving age this year will be hard to deliver. The next one, due in 2015, will be damned near impossible. And what are politicians doing about it? Very little, says Jonn Elledge.

Students in Bristol receiving their GCSE results. Photo: Getty

In the summer of 1972, in school playgrounds the length and breadth of the land, prefabs sprouted. After nearly a decade of ministerial dithering, the government had finally raised the school leaving age, to 16, and made parents legally liable for ensuring their kids stayed in the classroom. Those flat-pack buildings were the result: a physical manifestation of the fact that schools suddenly found themselves dealing with a lot of kids that they would previously have expected to bugger off.

Four decades later, the leaving age has risen again: as of this month, teenagers are legally required to stay in education until the academic year of their 17th birthday. In two years time, it goes up again, to 18.

This time, though, the change hasn’t been quite so conspicuous. In fact, unless you work in education, or have a 16 year old of your own to contend with, its possible you won't even have noticed (a survey reported last week showed that a quarter of parents hadn’t). To give you a sense of exactly how visible this seismic change in our education system has been, here is a brief précis of every major speech a coalition education minister has given on the topic:

There haven't been any.

To be fair, this isn't a coalition policy, but a Labour one, enacted into law back in 2008. What's more, the parallels with the class of '72 are not exact. Forty years ago, it was the school leaving age that was going up: that meant desks and exams and bits of chalk and so on. Today, it's the education participation age. That could mean A-levels, but it can also mean vocational courses, or apprenticeships, or a job with a certain amount of training.

Under this broader definition, most 16 year olds already do stay in education: at the end of 2011, just 5.5 per cent of them had left the system. (A year later, this had risen slightly, to 5.8 per cent. Great start, guys.) Nonetheless, that figure still covers several thousand kids who'd previously have left education but are now expected to remain. This, one might think, would be something ministers might want us to know about. Not a bit of it, though.

One good reason for ministers' silence might be the nature of their plans to actually make sure kids stay in education: they don’t have any.

Part of the problem is money. The Institute for Fiscal Studies said two years ago that 16-19 education spending would fall by 20 per cent over the life of this parliament. To make things tougher still, appealing to that last five per cent probably means vocational training – and the equipment required for such courses is generally more expensive than that required for, say, English A-level.

The lack of funding probably won't be that big a problem, though, because the government isn't planning to enforce the new law anyway. When Labour first introduced the plan, ministers talked about “carrots and sticks”, but seemed to be a lot more keen on the latter, in the form of £50 fines and criminal records for those who played hooky. The coalition, though, isn’t bothering with any of this. Kids who drop out of education won't face any sanctions. Nor will their parents. Nor will employers who hire them but don't offer the requisite 280 hours a year of training. The raising of the participation age is almost entirely notional.

It'd be unfair to say the government is doing nothing. It is, slowly, reforming the perplexing potpourri of vocational qualifications. It's introducing "traineeships", basic skills courses intended to get teenagers ready for full apprenticeships. These things will help at the margins – but nonetheless, the coalition's actions are not those of a government that is serious about ensuring that every teenager stays in education for another year.

And this, remember, is the easy bit. While 94 per cent of 16 year olds are in education, and 93 per cent of 17 year olds, that number drops to less than 85 per cent of 18 year olds. The increase in the leaving age this year will be hard to deliver. The next one, due in 2015, will be damned near impossible.

In the past, each time the school leaving age has increased, hysterical opponents warned that the result would be truancy, or schools chock full of kids so unwilling that classrooms would look like the set of A Clockwork Orange. Each time, those opponents were proved wrong. Perhaps, it'll be the same this time.

But perhaps, it won't. In 1972, those prefabs were also a reminder that kids didn't have to actually do anything to stay in school: all they had to do keep turning up. This time round, though, they have to navigate a dizzying array of options, and make an active decision about their future. It'd be a brave education minister who assumed inertia would be enough to make the policy a success – or, perhaps, an indifferent one.