Academics have warned of “significant implementation problems” when the education leaving age is raised to 17 next year and then to 18 in 2015.
Researchers from the Institute of Education have been monitoring preparations for the reforms and comparing them with the run-up to the raising of the school leaving age (ROSLA) to 16, which took place 40 years ago this month.
From next summer, all young people in England will have to remain in education or training until the end of the academic year in which they turn 17.
However, the researchers are warning that schools and colleges will face problems as the new system kicks in, not least with absenteeism.
One of the researchers, Dr Tom Woodin, said: “In poorer ‘pockets’ of the country, where there is little industry and commerce, absenteeism may become a significant problem. Many children stayed away from school in 1972 and a similar problem is likely to recur. The government says that it does not want to criminalise young people by fining them for non-compliance, but it may eventually have to resort to other measures that would also be regrettable, such as withdrawal of benefits from absentees.
“In the immediate years after ROSLA, the official leaving date was the end of the summer term, well after examinations had ended. This led to mass absenteeism of over 50 per cent in some schools. As a result, an earlier summer leaving date was introduced in 1976. The government may be forced to make similar adjustments.”
Fears have also been raised that “a significant minority” of young people may struggle to find an appropriate post-16 course – a situation which the researchers predict could persist for several years. They say that the English Baccalaureate exam reform, announced by education secretary Michael Gove earlier this month, could “make it even harder for many students to find good quality education or training options”.
There is a real danger, they add, that increasing numbers of young people will believe they have failed as the EBacc is expected to be a tougher examination. “Extensive consultations will be needed to develop an effective upper secondary education that meets the needs of all students,” they said.
Elsewhere, the study, which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, highlights a number of other dangers, including a potential funding shortfall. It points to a National Audit Office report published last year suggesting that the Department for Education had underestimated by £100 million the annual costs (by 2016/17) to local authorities of “tracking, engaging and supporting” the additional students.
“There are, however, grounds for optimism, as well as pessimism,” the researchers added. “Of all the educational reforms that originated in the 1960s, ROSLA has been the most enduring and maybe the most successful. We have to hope that the raising of the participation age will also be a lasting success.”
Raising the Participation Age in Historical Perspective: Policy learning from the past? by Dr Woodin, Professor Gary McCulloch and Dr Steven Cowan, is to be published by the British Educational Research Journal.