What is the UK school leaving age?
In the UK, the government determines the duration of compulsory education, with the minimum school leaving age set down in an Act of Parliament.
The school leaving age has increased steadily since state-sponsored education was first recognised as a right for all children in the UK. Originally set at ten, it now stands at 16.
However after the age of 16, children must now stay in full time education, start an apprenticeship or traineeship, or spend 20 hours a week working or volunteering, while in part time education or training.
History of the school leaving age
The Elementary Education Act 1870, also known as Forster’s Education Act, recognised a framework of education for children between five and 13. It was founded on the need to improve the skills of the British workforce, maintaining competitiveness, and also preparing them for their new found voting rights.
The 1870 Act created elected school boards, which required attendance and could fine parents for their child’s absence, with some exemptions including distance from school. School boards were abolished in the Balfour Act 1902 and replaced by Local Education Authorities.
An 1880 Act made education compulsory until the age of ten, following campaigning by the National Education League. Under the Elementary Education (School Attendance) Act 1893 it was increased to 11 and the right to education was extended to deaf and blind children. In 1899 the leaving age was increased again to 13.
The Fisher Education Act 1918 made education compulsory up until 14 years old, paving the way for increased tertiary education. Growing public debate on the role of education prompted government-commissioned inquiries into further reform. The Hadow committee subsequently recommended the distinction of infant and junior classes and maximum class sizes of 30.
In 1939 the government considered raising the leaving age again to 15, but this was delayed due to the onset of World War Two. The Education Act 1944 did succeed in extending compulsory education to 15, and this took effect from 1947. More significantly, the 1944 Act created the grammar school system. All 11-year-olds were required to sit the 11-plus examination, which placed them in either an academic grammar school or a secondary modern.
Preparations began in 1964 to raise the leaving age again to 16, and this took effect in 1972. This has remained the case, meaning in practice children are compelled to attend school until after their GCSE exams.
In 2006 the government announced it was actively considering increasing the leaving age to 18. In 2007 the Department for Education and Skills launched a consultation, working towards an implementation date of 2013.
The Education and Skills Act 2008 increased the minimum age at which young people in England can leave learning. This required them to continue in education or vocational training to the age of 17 from 2013 and to 18 since 2015.
Young people will be able to choose whether to stay in full-time education, undertake work-based learning such as an apprenticeship, or part-time education or training if they are employed, self-employed or volunteering for more than 20 hours per week.
Debates around the age of school leavers
The concept of state education for all children proved controversial from its onset, regardless of the scope and duration of this education. Prior to the 1870 Forster Act education was provided on an ad hoc basis with a strong input from the Church. It also distinctly favoured the children of the middle and upper classes who were educated at fee paying schools.
The National Education League, established in 1869, set out as a founding objective the establishment of a system that would educate every child in England and Wales. Its lobbying led to the 1870 Act, which created school boards funded through local rates. The 1870 Act also responded to economic and social necessities, recognising the need for an educated workforce if Britain was to retain its industry and competitiveness. The Reform Act 1867 had also significantly increased the electorate, extending suffrage to working class men. Reformers argued the new voting power required a more educated working class.
However, many remained hostile to the idea of educating the working class, fearing it could de-stabilise the class system and foment dissent. Others warned of the indoctrination risk of mass education. The Act also allowed parents to withdraw their children from religious education, potentially undermining the role of the Church.
Many families themselves objected to compulsory education, arguing they needed children to earn a wage. Each subsequent increase to the school leaving age was therefore met with fresh criticism as families “lost” another economically active member for a year or more. Unsurprisingly the 1880 Act also established attendance officers to enforce attendance and parents could be fined for keeping their children out of school.
There are practical problems of raising the school leaving age, as each increase creates a “gap year” of students who are suddenly in education for an additional year. Schools are required to deal with a significantly enlarged student body and this can create logistical problems with staff and classroom numbers.
The 1964 Education Act allowed LEAs to create middle schools. This helped schools manage capacity problems as pupils spent a year longer at primary school and came to secondary school later. There are now fewer than 400 middle schools in England, concentrated in 22 LEAs.
After the 1972 Act schools were provided with temporary buildings to house their new final year. These became known as ROSLA (Raising school leaving age) buildings and were delivered to schools as self assembly packs. Although not designed for long-term use, many schools continued using them.
There is also scepticism that the school leaving age is increased at times when the government wishes to reduce the number of young people seeking employment, and thereby increasing the unemployment statistics.
The latest ambitions to increase the education leaving age to 18 have not been without controversy. Former education secretary Alan Johnson defended the proposals. Pointing to a decline in unskilled jobs, he said young people must be equipped to meet the demands of modern employment.
Teaching groups initially reacted angrily to the proposals, questioning how the government intended to enforce the new increased leaving age – although this would have been a factor for all previous governments to consider.
Other critics said the government needed to look at why young people were opting out of education at 16, pointing out that many people already required to remain in education until 16 left without a formal qualification.
In February 2012, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, announced the launch of a new scheme intended to help at least 55,000 young people aged 16-17 classified as NEETs (not in education, employment or training) to “get their lives on track”. Under the scheme, £126m of new money was made available, and charities and businesses with expertise in supporting young people will be invited to bid for contracts worth up to £2,200 for every young person they help.
“Sitting at home with nothing to do when you’re so young can knock the stuffing out of you for years. It is a tragedy for the young people involved – a ticking time bomb for the economy and our society as a whole. This problem isn’t new, but in the current economic climate we urgently need to step up efforts to ensure some of our most troubled teenagers have the skills, confidence and opportunities to succeed.”
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, announcing a new £126m funding scheme to help 16 and 17 year old ‘NEETs’ into training or work – February 2012