16-18 education: participation matters

Blog posts

27 Nov 2023

Becci Newton

Becci Newton, Director, Public Policy Research

Follow @beccinewton13

This blog was originally published by Campaign for Learning.

Conference season is over and all parties indicated that 16-18 education and training is back on the agenda. The headlines are:


The Conservative Party proposes to introduce an Advanced British Standard (ABS) for 16-19 year-olds ready for Level 3. The name is odd since education is devolved to UK nations, but no matter.  

The title of the accompanying policy paper, a world-class education system, chimes with that of Leitch Review (2006). Back then, there was also a focus on broadening the curriculum building on the 14-19 education reforms from 2003 onwards. The Conservatives’ policy is different, being fully focused on post-16. it will bring A and T Levels into a new overarching qualification formed of five-or-more major and minor subjects. That is a major change.


Labour’s approach is not set in stone as it will lead a review of curriculum and assessment before proposing changes.

Its mission for skills will focus on strong foundations, a broad curriculum embracing arts, not simply STEM, that reflects the diversities of the country and supports all to achieve. These are worthy, if not new, ambitions.

The approach suggests incremental rather than step-change, but change nonetheless.

Liberal Democrats

The Lib Dems will inaugurate a commission to lead consensus-building across the system on the changes needed.

Their policy statements indicate a focus on broadening the curriculum with the International Baccalaureate noted as good practice.

They also intend to introduce arts to the English Baccalaureate so, a focus on STEAM too and strong similarities between the two parties not in government.

A broader 16-19 curriculum

Across all three parties, then, a shared aim is for a broader post-16 curriculum.

It is unclear how T Levels and Apprenticeships will fare for this age group, since both comprise single, substantial, occupationally-focused qualifications, rather than even the typical up-to-four subjects studied for A Levels.

The participation question

In assessing these proposals for curriculum change, there remains a question about who this will serve. Notably, there was little emphasis from any party about maximising the number of 16-18 year-olds participating in recognised education and training.

Yet, as a nation we have long understood the benefits of this and policies have centred on extending the time young people have to develop their skills.

The first, Raising of the School Leaving Age (ROSLA) developed through multiple iterations extended full-time education to the age of 16 in 1972. This was followed most recently by the Raising the Participation Age (RPA) in 2013. 

Participation to the 18th birthday

The unique feature of RPA is its recognition of different and equal forms of participation. It guaranteed all young people could continue in in full-time education, apprenticeships or jobs or volunteering with part-time learning – until their 18th birthday.

The origins of the policy lie with the last Labour government (2005-2010). It was enacted by the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition (2010-2015) but in diluted form. Participation was encouraged instead of being mandated, and there was no enforcement for employers to provide or enable training for young people in jobs without training. At the same time, cuts to public spending meant local authorities had limited funding to track and re-engage young people who were not participating in line with RPA expectations.

The effect of RPA can be traced in the participation data. Between 2013 and 2021, participation among 16-17 year-olds has stabilised at around 94%, with around 91% of this being recognised provision. As Figure 1 shows there have been shifts in the nature of participation; full-time education has become the default, and participation in apprenticeships has dropped considerably.

Conversely, there are 9% of 16-17 year-olds who are not in approved education and training, some of whom are in jobs without training but a greater proportion who are not in education, employment or training (NEET) (Figure 2). There is a persistent proportion of 16 and 17 year olds outside the system; in 2013, the combined 16-17 year NEET rate was 4.5% in 2013. It now stands at 4.6%. Evidence has shown that this group contains some of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable young people.

Figure 1: Long term trend of participation

Source: Department for Education administrative data and the Labour Force Survey

Figure 2: Long term trend NEETs

Source: Department for Education administrative data and the Labour Force Survey [1]

A new 16-18 participation and re-engagement strategy

This illustrates the potential inadequacies of focusing on changes to the 16-18 qualification system without a parallel focus on participation and re-engagement.

While those who are on track for 16-19 further education and training may benefit, we will still see too many young people not fully developing their potential. Many of these do not achieve a Level 2 by age 16 and a grade 4+ in English and Maths so do not have the basic skills that employers need. And we know if they do not acquire these before they become adults - it will not get rectified, meaning they are at risk of becoming locked into low skill, low paid work.

To bring these young people back in, we need to consider why they left. Disengaged and disheartened by a lack of academic success, and by a system that cannot be sufficiently personalised to support their needs, many want to find a new context in which they can succeed.

An answer may be increased vocationalism and applied, work-related learning from a younger age, so that education feels purposeful, and the return of functional skills options to build confidence in numeracy.

We should not lack ambition for these young people, we also need to foster their engagement, build their confidence so they do build the skills that employers most demand.

[1] https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/participation-in-education-and-training-and-employment

Subscribe to blog posts

Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.