Opinion Articles

Can compulsion work? What history has to say about raising the school leaving age

By the autumn of 2008, it seems likely the school-leaving age will have been raised to 18, though compulsory attendance will not be enforced until 2013-15. The absence rate for year 11 pupils (aged 15-16) is currently over 10% 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 workers of tomorrow. Current participation rates in post-16 education and training have hardly shifted since the early 1990s. The introduction of legal compulsion can be seen as a 'final effort' to reach the reluctant 23% of 16-18s who don't do any education or training once they leave school. It is probable that the 'final few' will be fairly resistant to legal penalties for not attending their post-16 courses - so is it a realistic policy?

Proposals to extend the years of compulsory schooling have always attracted loud and influential opposition. The result has been governmental caution. In 1899, when the Robson Act raised the effective leaving age to 13, half-time working was allowed to continue at age 12 and the seasonal needs of agriculture were accommodated. In 1918, the Fisher Act raised it to 14, which left most working-class children with no secondary education. The War prevented it being raised to 15 until 1947 and even then, critics claimed the post-war world had neither the buildings nor the trained teachers to cope with the extra pupils. In 1972, 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 kept at school to the age of 16 (The Times 05/05/1971). In fact, the lack of any perceptible jump in truancy rates after each successive rise in the leaving age would seem to prove the value of the law as a '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. Then as now, acceptance of more schooling was helped by a delay in implementation for several years in each case. For instance, the intention to raise the leaving age to 16 was proposed by government as early as 1964, passed into law in 1969 but not implemented until 1972. Delay defuses opposition and allows time for parents, schools and pupils to accept the change and at the same time, governments defer the collateral costs involved.

Raising the school leaving age has always been part of a wider economic and social policy aimed at boosting the skills and employability of young people and reducing crime, anti-social behaviour and delinquency. Each successive increase in years of schooling has been accompanied by grand (and potentially costly) plans to ensure the extra years produce a better-qualified workforce. It is this elusive goal which has proved the most challenging aspect of the policy to extend the years of schooling. Although compelling attendance has not proved as problematic as critics have forecast, governments have found it much more difficult to improve the quality of education or training offered to those retained in school longer. The 1918 Act promised continuation schools as a bridge from the classroom to the workplace. The plan came to nothing in the face of a coalition of apathy from employers, working-class parents and young people themselves. In 1947, great hopes were entertained that technical education could provide the 'lost momentum' for working-class youth who failed to get into the prized grammar schools. Secondary moderns, cheap and cheerful, proved more cost-effective for LEAs, so the technical schools fell by the wayside. By the 1970s, the problem was seen as a qualifications issue. Since those who gained O levels 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.

Critics of the current proposals such as Professor Alison Wolf claim compulsion will not help to improve the job prospects of those forced to stay in the education system. 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 twenty 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 the future, effectively co-ordinating mixed 'job and training' schemes could prove challenging and fining young people who truant will not encourage them to value 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 they do turn up.

About the author

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. She is funded by the ESRC. She has been chair of governors for an Oxford secondary school and formerly worked in senior management in further education for 16 years. nicola.sheldon@history.ox.ac.uk

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