The education secretary today outlined proposals to require all young people to remain in education until their 18th birthday.
Mr Johnson argued there is a “compelling” economic imperative to raise the school leaving age, in what would be the most radical change since 1972.
A shortage of low skilled jobs and the demands of global competition mean it is crucial for UK economic success that young people are better equipped for the workforce, Mr Johnson argued. Extended education could also cut anti social behaviour, he claimed.
The education secretary continued: “It’s not good for the economy or for young people if they leave school at 16 without the skills they need to succeed in the world of work.
“As a nation we’ve toyed with the idea for almost a hundred years, now is the time to make it a reality for all.”
Today’s green paper, Raising Expectations, Education and Skills, outlines a number of proposals for consultation, but by 2013 the government wants all 16 to 18-year-olds to be in training or education.
Mr Johnson said: “Those young people who continue in education or training for longer earn more, and are less likely to be involved in anti-social behaviour. Often those that drop out are those with the most to gain from continuing to learn and gain useful skills.
“We must not allow young people to be left behind.”
The paper proposes any young person not employed for a “significant part of the week” should be in full-time education, with part-time studies for anyone working more than 20 hours a week.
Young people could be offered the opportunity to work towards accredited qualifications at college or on the job and the government hopes to “significantly expand” the number of available apprenticeships to meet demand.
New financial support measures will be introduced to help young people from low income families overcome barriers to participation, building on the existing Education Maintenance Allowance. They will also be offered better advice and guidance, with a new registration system to ensure young people do not drop out of the system.
The chancellor Gordon Brown said the number of 16 to 24-year-olds in full-time education, employment or training has increased from 5.2 million in 1997 to 5.8 million, but the government wants to do more.
“That is why, alongside increased investment in skills and training, for the first time in our country’s history, we will make education a right for every young person until 18, and ensure they take up the opportunities open to them,” the chancellor said.
Commenting, the NASUWT, the UK’s largest teaching union, said the rationale and vision behind the proposals “are undoubtedly right”, but the government would have to consider staff and funding levels, as well as how the policy would be enforced.
The Leitch review, published last year, warned the UK needed more skilled workers to maintain its global competitiveness.