Raising the age of participation in education to 18

In England, the compulsory age of participation in education or training was raised to 17 in 2013 and then 18 in 2015. In Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, the school leaving age is 16. The idea of raising the age of participation in education or training is gaining traction in the Scottish context, as well as in Wales.

Countries that have raised the age of participation in recent years (including a number of USA and Australian states as well as England), have argued that a better qualified workforce would improve economic output and performance in an increasingly globalised economic market. In some cases, this was supported by an inclusion agenda, with a commitment that enforcing continued participation in education (or training) for longer periods of time would help to narrow social and economic inequalities.

Welsh Government is keen to explore the implications of pursuing this policy in Wales, including how it might interact with the ongoing reforms to school age and post-16 provision in Wales, and a consideration of alternative policies which concentrate on reducing early school leaving as opposed to policies that legally require young people to remain in learning for longer periods of time.

To examine the above issues, we have commissioned a desk-based literature review to look at international evidence on the benefits and challenges of increasing the participation age, as well as alternative policies. This will be complemented by quantitative analysis to model the impact of raising the participation age (RPA) in Wales. To understand how this policy would interact with current and planned policy reform in Wales, a small number of interviews with key stakeholders in Welsh Government and in the wider education sector were conducted.

The literature review shows that:

  • Overall, the evidence to support RPA legislation is weak. International analysis of historical data based on the impact of raising the school leaving age (ROSLA) points to it having a small positive effect on qualification attainment, unemployment rates and future earnings. However, the impact on improving retention rates in post-16 learning is questionable.
  • International evidence on the impact of raising the school leaving age identified the costs as a key issue to be addressed, as well the significant time needed to plan implementation.
  • On the basis of the evidence, RPA would generate limited benefits for young people who are least engaged in learning. Substantial investment and creativity in developing learning packages to meet their needs could have greater impact.
  • International evidence points to the need to focus efforts on encouraging continued engagement in learning and reducing early leaving.

Findings from interviews with nine key informants (who included senior policymakers, as well as senior representatives from organisations which play a key role in post-16 education and training across Wales) indicated the following:

  • Although agreeing that young people benefited from remaining in learning until 18, key informants in Wales exhibited a lukewarm response to the idea of implementing RPA. Concerns were expressed about how a compulsory system would be enforced and its impact on young people from hard to help/hard to reach groups.
  • A preference was stated for improving participation, retention and achievement rates by offering an enhanced and accessible post-16 offer across Wales.

Taking into account existing and proposed legislation in the post-16 education and training space (e.g. the implementation of the New Curriculum for Wales and the proposed post-compulsory education and training [PCET] reforms), recommendations include:

  • Focusing on reducing post-16 attrition rates and introducing a strategy to reduce early (school) leaving;
  • Providing a coherent and consistent post-16 offer which is aligned with the objectives of the New Curriculum for Wales;
  • Supporting early labour market entrants and strengthening their access to continued learning; and
  • Providing sustained funding for prevention and reintegration initiatives targeted at young people not in education, employment or training.