All teenagers will have to stay in education or training until they reach 18 under proposals being considered by ministers.
Alan Johnson, the Secretary of State for Education, said he was considering legislation to send a clear message that no one under 18 should be in work or out of school without receiving education or job training.
Nearly a quarter of 17-year-olds are not in education or training, according to figures published last year. Ministers want to reduce that to 10 per cent by 2015.
Mr Johnson said that he wanted all young people to choose to stay in school or college or join training schemes, but he warned that legislation might be necessary to ensure no teenager fell through the net.
Speaking in Westminster, Mr Johnson praised new laws being introduced in the Canadian province of Ontario, which aim to raise the school leaving age to 18 by requiring teenagers to continue learning in classrooms or other programmes.
The legislation included plans to force teenagers to prove they were at school or in training before applying for a driving licence.
Mr Johnson said 16- and 17-year-olds already had a right to on-the-job training if they left school to get a job. But he said many were still outside the system.
One senior government source said: "This is not about the school leaving age, but about an education leaving age. If you want people to do this, you need to legislate. This is not something we are going to do imminently, because it needs a lot of work, but it is something that we are taking very seriously."
Mr Johnson also said that he would "stamp on" any moves to allow schools to stop teaching their pupils about the First and Second World Wars.Reuse content