More qualifications needed from longer stay in school

The effect of gaining a certification and not just merely length of schooling alone plays an important role in explaining future economic outcomes.

The commitment to keeping young people in education for longer is of questionable value unless it is also accompanied by an increase in the qualifications that pupils achieve.

One of the Government’s responses to concerns about the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), (a payment of up to £30 a week to children from poorer families who remain in post-16 education) has been to mention their commitment to raising the school participation age to 18. The details of this latter policy need to be carefully thought through for it to have a real impact on the life chances of disadvantaged young people.

Findings from a 2006 ISER study show that raising the school-leaving age has a significant impact on individuals’ labour market returns only if those individuals compelled to stay on complete national recognised qualifications.

This finding has important implications. The current policy would compel young people to stay in education or training until the end of the academic year in which they turn 17, and as from 2015 until their 18th birthday. It is not clear that, as it currently stands, this policy will bring about an increase in qualification levels and therefore substantial improvement in an individual’s life chances6.

The Government decision to scrap the EMA – and replace it with a smaller payment – was on the grounds that the EMA is expensive (£553 million in 2009/10) and that about 88 per cent of EMA recipients would stay in education even without this subsidy. But a 2007 Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) report found that the EMA significantly increased participation rates in post-16 education among eligible young adults7. In particular, it increased the proportion of eligible 16-year-olds staying in education from 65 per cent to 69 per cent, and increased the proportion of eligible 17-year-olds in education from 54 per cent to 61 per cent.

A more recent study by IFS researchers finds that in areas where the EMA was available, students as a whole were around two percentage points more likely to reach the thresholds for Levels two and three of the National Qualifications Framework and they also had A-Level grades around four points higher (on the UCAS tariff) on average8.

Which schools promote social mobility?