School Leaving Age in Britain History

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The age at which a government mandates education is significant. In this lesson, we'll look at the history of the school leaving age in England, and see how and why this has changed over time. Updated: 11/27/2019

School Leaving Age

Some people love being in school. They can't get enough of it. However, there are others who can't wait until the second when they are no longer required to continue their formal education. In the world today, nations like England require a compulsory education, meaning it's non-optional education, up to a certain age. What that age is, however, has changed over time, a result of different attitudes about education, work, and the opportunities various members of British society should have. Want to know more? Well then, school is in session.

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  • 0:04 School Leaving Age
  • 0:37 Compulsory Education Origins
  • 1:26 20th Century Changes
  • 2:41 Modern School Leaving Age
  • 5:04 Lesson Summary
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Compulsory Education Origins

Education was not a guarantee for most people in the world until the 19th century, when many nations started making public education a top priority. In England, this meant changing some fundamental assumptions about social classes, and creating an educational system accessible to all British citizens. This began with the Elementary Education Act of 1870, which established compulsory education for children. This was a new concept for England and introduced many questions. For example, if the government was going to mandate public education, and therefore have to pay for public education, to what age would this be enforced? The first school leaving age, or age at which education was no longer compulsory, was age 10, although the government did provide for education to students up to 13.

William Edward Forster, who sponsored the Elementary Education Act of 1870

20th Century Changes

As British society became more accustomed to the idea of working-class citizens receiving a mandatory education, the school leaving age increased. The first major raising of school leaving age, a formal change in school leaving age policies that in England is often abbreviated as ROSLA, occurred in 1939. Parliament debated to raise the age to 15, although this was delayed due to WWII and not formalized until the Education Act of 1944 and implemented until 1947.

Education in England was expanded in the 20th century
Education in England

The next big change came in 1964, when Parliament started preparing to raise school leaving age to 16. This change came from concerns that England's levels of education were not on par with other major countries, and was implemented in 1972. England was careful to track the results of this change, partly because the move was very controversial at the time, and later claimed that increasing the school leaving age by a year had drastically increased the average level of education. The children who got an extra year of education did better on government-mandated performance exams. A large number continued on to higher education, and their children tended to seek higher levels of education as well. So, the government saw this change as a success.

Modern School Leaving Age

Fast-forward to 2007. The British government estimated that 200,000 people between the ages of 16 and 18 weren't involved in either education or vocational training. Not only did this raise concerns about England's welfare system, British Ministers also claimed that this would make the nation non-competitive on the global political and economic scale. In short, if England wanted to keep up with the world, it would need to once again raise its school leaving age. This new program was implemented gradually: the school leaving age was raised to 17 in 2013, and 18 in 2015.

The school leaving age was raised to 18 in 2015.
British students

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