"We've got to keep young people in education after 16, whether it's part-time or whether it's full-time, whether it's training in work, or in college, or staying on at school." This is what Gordon Brown had to say in support of the proposal by the new schools' secretary Ed Balls that we raise the school leaving age to 18.
Brown and Balls are right. A recent study in Canada found that the introduction of tighter provincial restrictions on leaving school between 1920 and 1990 had helped in raising both average attainment and average incomes. The study found that students compelled to attend an extra year of school experienced an average increase in annual income of about 12%. It also found that compulsory schooling is closely associated with significant benefits in terms of other socio-economic outcome measures ranging from bi-lingual abilities, employment and poverty status.
The Ontario study, recently cited by Alan Johnson, concluded that the personal costs of dropping out of full time education aged 16 were high. The study estimated that the earnings foregone as a result of leaving school early ranged from about one to two times the average dropout's lifetime peak annual wage or three to six times the earnings forgone by staying in school. In many countries, school attendance is mandatory for all children up to a specific age. Children often then have the choice of staying on at school for further education and possible preparation for university or college entrance, or leaving to pursue a job or professional training. For example in India this is at 14 years of age whilst in the UK and many other countries throughout the world it is 16.
What is not in doubt is that the longer a young person stays in education the greater the chance that he/she will acquire additional skills and significantly more opportunities in life as a whole. It has been shown many times that those who have stayed on in education longer often find it easier to find work and that they are much more likely to find that work satisfying. Similarly, the level of education among the population can have a positive effect on the economy as a whole as they can be more efficient workers. As the Ontario study has shown the impact of extra years of education on earnings and economic productivity is also disproportionately heavy at the lower end - that is, two more years at school for a 16 year old will make a much greater percentage difference to their later economic worth than two years of graduate work for a 22 year old.
The raising of what should really be called the "education leaving age" would, in my view, be a positive move that would help to promote greater equality. Currently there is a clear link between leaving full time education at aged 16 and indicators of socio-economic disadvantage, such as low-income jobs or high unemployment. More importantly parents who left school young are more likely to have children who leave school early. Forcing all children to stay in school longer could break this cycle of disadvantage.Increasing the education leaving age is, I believe, crucial to the long-term investment in the talents and abilities of our nation. Doing so will increase the economic potential of the future workforce, and so will bring increased tax revenues in the long term to more than cover any initial costs. For example it is worth noting that in many countries a very large majority of young people voluntarily stay in education beyond the end of compulsory schooling (e.g. France, Germany and Japan). If these countries can already bear the extra cost without economic collapse, it should be possible for nations like our own to cope as well.As a movement Labour really is at its best when at its boldest.
Raising the education-leaving age to 18 would be a progressive, bold and socially just policy. The sooner it happens the better.