The age at which teenagers remain in compulsory education or training will be increased from 16 to 18 over the next seven years, starting this week.

Children’s secretary Ed Balls hailed the government’s move to raise the leaving age to 18 as the biggest change to education in a generation.

Mr Balls said the “bold step” of the Education and Skills Act, which comes into force this week, would benefit millions of young people in the UK for years to come.

“If we are to have a fair society where all young people have a chance to do well in life, we must ensure that everyone continues learning. Too many young people drop out or end up in dead-end jobs with no prospects of promotion or advancement,” he said.

Eight out of ten children remain in education or training when they reach 16, with those who opt not to leave school less likely to commit crimes, suffer ill-health or get involved in antisocial behaviour in later life.

Children who stay in education or training can also expect to earn £100,000 more over the course of their lifetime than those who leave school at 16.

“In a rapidly changing labour market and these tough economic conditions, a job for life is a thing of the past,” Mr Balls continued.

“Young people in the UK without qualifications are going to find it increasingly difficult to gain employment. We must have an evolving education system that reflects the requirements of employers and the fast pace of change in business. No young person should be left behind.

“We do not expect every 16 and 17 year old to remain in the classroom – they will still be able to work, as long as they are learning too. This system is about creating real options for students so there is something for everyone.”