Should we lower the school leaving age to 14?

Having raised the school leaving age to 18, it should come as no surprise that some very powerful people with the ear of government are now keen to lower the school leaving age to 14. Lord Digby Jones is at the forefront of this drive. Such is the topsy-turvy world of government.

I appeared with him on Radio London today on the Robert Elms Show where he explained that the chronically failing education system meant that many children would be far better off with work placements from 14 years of age rather than taking their GCSEs. He said that pupils should be able to opt out of school and should be inducted into apprenticeships with suitable businesses for three or four days a week, while attending college for the remaining time. His claim was that many pupils were learning nothing in school and would learn more learning a trade. He incorrectly said that over half of pupils were failing to get a C grade or more in GCSE English and Maths. The correct figure are:41% of pupils did not achieve a C grade in maths and 35% did not achieve this benchmark in English. In other words 65% of pupils do achieve a C grade in English; there are substantially more “literate” pupils than he claims according to this measure.

I argued that the picture that he painted of our schools failing so many children was false and that the vast majority of pupils did well out of the current system and that we should work on improving existing provision rather than casting out millions of children into the world of work when they’re simply not ready. There is a very strong link between social deprivation and educational under-achievement; there’s absolutely no reason why Digby Jones’s ideas will improve this situation. We’d be far better off spreading good practice; working getting the best schools to collaborate with ones that are struggling so that all our pupils raise their achievements. Schools like Mossbourne Academy and Bethnal Green Technology College (BGTC) have shown that you can educate our poorest children to the highest of standards. This year at BGTC eight out of ten pupils got 5 A*-C grades at GCSE, including English and Maths, with over half of them being on Free School Meals. Both these schools have well developed vocational pathways for under-achieving students but they also make their pupils take the standard GCSEs as well; there’s lessons to learn from them.

Digby Jones’s ideas are based on the Austrian model and more generally the Germanic model of having a “dual education” system, with parity between between vocational and academic education. The vocational system in Austria has become very fashionable amongst right-wing circles in recent months, especially since the summer’s riots. I attended a talk about the system at the Austrian embassy this Thursday where a number of Austrian education gurus spoke of the wonders of their system where nearly half of 14 year-olds leave school and serve as apprentices. I noticed a few policy wonks from various right-wing think-tanks in attendance too. There are over 250 types of apprenticeships in Austria; detailed careers advice is given to the young people and together with their parents they sign a contract with the relevant business or trade which effectively “indentures” them with their business for the next few years. Training is provided for the employers and the system is monitored tightly by central government. The apprentice system appears to work there, with youth unemployment running at just 7%, far lower than the rampant rates of unemployment we have in this country.

So why don’t we imitate it?

There are some good reasons why I feel the Austrian system will not work here. Firstly, size and demographics. Austrian has a population of 8m, with fewer than a million pupils at school; we have a school population which is bigger than the entire country. Austria is a very wealthy country with relatively small differences in wealth between the rich and poor; there is virtually no immigration there. If every family in England had the average wealth of an Austrian family there is a good reason to believe that we wouldn’t have so much educational under-achievement; time and again, the statistics show a very strong correlation between wealth and educational achievement and employment chances.

Secondly and following on from this point, imagine the nightmare of the families of the apprentices signing detailed and complicated contracts with the prospective employers; in Austria, where there are relatively few problem families, it’s not a problem, but can you imagine some of our parents being involved with this process or knowing much about how to do this? Can you imagine central government supervising millions of children in thousands of different trades and ensuring there was quality across the board? Logistically, it would be a complete disaster here.

Thirdly, I believe the Austrian system is going to run into big trouble soon because the nature of the workforce is changing so rapidly; it’s already struggling to keep up with the changes in technology that are going on. Austria, which earns most of its money from exports, has benefited greatly from the Euro, being able to sell its goods relatively cheaply in Europe. That soon, given the crisis with the Euro, is going to change; many businesses may go bankrupt. What happens to their vocational training then?


Published by: @wonderfrancis

Francis Gilbert is a Lecturer in Education at Goldsmiths, University of London, teaching on the PGCE Secondary English programme. He also teaches the Creative Writing module on the MA in Children’s Literature, which is run by Maggie Pitfield and Professor Michael Rosen. Previously, he worked for a quarter of a century in various English state schools teaching English and Media Studies to 11-18 year olds. He has, at times, moonlighted as a journalist, novelist and social commentator. He is the author of ‘Teacher On The Run’, ‘Yob Nation’, ‘Parent Power’, ‘Working The System -- How To Get The Very Best State Education for Your Child’, and a novel about school, ‘The Last Day Of Term’. His first book, ‘I'm A Teacher, Get Me Out Of Here’ was a big hit, becoming a bestseller and being serialised on Radio 4. In his role as an English teacher, he has taught many classic texts over the years and has developed a great many resources to assist readers with understanding, appreciating and responding to them both analytically and creatively. This led him to set up his own small publishing company FGI Publishing ( which has published his study guides as well as a number of books by other authors, including Roger Titcombe’s ‘Learning Matters’ and anthology of creative writing 'The Gold Room'. He is the co-founder, with Melissa Benn and Fiona Millar, of The Local Schools Network,, a blog that celebrates non-selective state schools, and has his own website, He has appeared numerous times on radio and TV, including Newsnight, the Today Programme, Woman’s Hour and the Russell Brand Show. In June 2015, he was awarded a PhD in Creative Writing and Education by Goldsmiths.

Categories LearningTags, , , , 5 Comments

5 thoughts on “Should we lower the school leaving age to 14?”

  1. Lowering the school leaving age is a cop-out of our responsibility to find a way to make education meaningful for all. There is a role for employers and community organisations to work with schools to provide young people with resilience and core life skills. However the safest place for a young person to mature and grow into responsible citizens is inside school.
    See School Exclusions lead to Prison

  2. i’m currently 14 and – even though i shouldnt admit it… i ENJOY going to school. i’m preidcted straight A’s and A*s and i want to study law when i leave. WHY, would they even consider letting people out of school when they’re my age? if they spent time with them they would know most are actually incapleable of having a conversation that doesnt end in “she said the he said then she said then he….” ect ect.

  3. We Clealy Should Be Able To Leave School At 14, Im 14 And I Want To Leave. I Think That Mature 14 Year Old Should Be Able To Leave With Their Current Grades Aslong As There Not Low. This Is Because We Dont Fit In With The Rest Of The School Because We Want To Leave!

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