School poll casts doubt on plans to raise leaving age

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Thousands of teenage drop-outs return to school or college within a year - realising they have made a mistake in quitting full-time education at 16, says research published today.

Figures from the Learning and Skills Council, the quango responsible for education after the age of 16, reveals 41 per cent of the 330,000 16-year-olds who quit school each year returned to gain better exam passes.

The research shows that about 40,000 were back in the classroom within a year - while about 200,000 returned within five years.

The figures have put a question mark over ministers' plans to introduce a leaving age of 18, according to one of the country's most respected academics. Professor Alan Smithers, of the University of Buckingham's Centre for Education and Employment, said: "I think it would be a bad mistake. We know there are something like 50,000 truants a day from school up to the age of 16. It is quite reasonable to compel children to stay in school up until a certain age (it is 16 at present although that may be a little bit too long) - otherwise they're not going to be able to learn words and numbers or make as much of their life as they could.

"However, after that, it seems to me the role of the Government is to create good opportunities which will help people go in the direction they want to. Having had school up to 16, young people might think 'I just want to get out of it' and - if you tie them down until 18 - they're going to kick up.

"The research seems to show that - if you let them leave - they're going to come back because they realise they need qualifications or training to do what they want to do."

Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, is planning to publish a Green Paper in the spring on the practicalities of insisting all teenagers stay in full-time education or training until the age of 18.