Government plans to compel all young people to remain in education or training until at least their 18th birthday seem certain to encounter substantial obstacles and will be further complicated by the proposal to replace GCSEs with an English Baccalaureate from 2015, say researchers at the Institute of Education.

From next summer, young people in England will be required to remain in education or training until the end of the academic year in which they turn 17. From 2015, they will be obliged to continue until their 18th birthday.

However, education historians who have been monitoring the preparations for the reform, and comparing them with the run-up to the raising of the school leaving age (ROSLA) exactly 40 years ago this month, are anticipating significant implementation problems.

Absenteeism is likely to be one of them, even though the Government has said that those who are employed, self-employed or volunteering for 20 hours or more a week will be able to opt for part-time education or training.

“In poorer ‘pockets’ of the country, where there is little industry and commerce, absenteeism may become a significant problem,” says Dr Tom Woodin. “Many children stayed away from school in 1972 and a similar problem is likely to recur. The Government says that it does not want to criminalise young people by fining them for non-compliance. But it may eventually have to resort to other measures that would also be regrettable, such as withdrawal of benefits from absentees.

“In the immediate years after ROSLA, the official leaving date was the end of the summer term, well after examinations had ended. This led to mass absenteeism of over 50 per cent in some schools. As a result, an earlier summer leaving date was introduced in 1976. The Government may be forced to make similar adjustments in the years to come.”

Dr Woodin and his colleagues, Professor Gary McCulloch and Dr Steven Cowan, also fear that a significant minority of young people may struggle to find an appropriate post-16 course, and predict that this situation may persist for several years. They welcome the decision to provide independent careers guidance. However, they are concerned that the exams reform proposed this week may make it even harder for many students to find good quality education or training options.

There is also a real danger, they say, that increasing numbers of young people will believe they have failed as the “EBacc” is expected to be a tougher examination. Extensive consultations will be needed to develop an effective upper secondary education that meets the needs of all students.

The researchers applaud the aims behind the raising of the participation age, a Labour policy enshrined in law by the 2008 Education and Skills Act. The objective is to give all young people the opportunity to maximize their potential, and develop skills and qualifications that should increase their employment opportunities and future earnings. However, their study, which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, found that absenteeism and an insufficiently flexible exams system are not the only problems that may hamper the reform. The researchers also point to:

Lack of coherent planning: Pilot schemes in various parts of England have been hindered by a lack of strategic planning – although some individual schemes have been very successful. “Local authorities are in the difficult situation of being given more responsibility for promoting 16-19 education – bringing together partners, identifying gaps, monitoring young people — without the power and resources that they need to co-ordinate the efforts,” the researchers explain. “Many local authorities are now wary of challenging schools which have become more autonomous.”

Different starting points: In Barnsley, only 85 per cent of 16 and 17-year-olds are currently in the education system. In other areas, the proportion of young people affected by the coming reform will be much smaller. In Hertfordshire, for example, the participation rate has already reached 95 per cent.

Potential funding shortfall: A National Audit Office report published last year suggested that the Department for Education had underestimated by £100 million the annual costs (by 2016-17) to local authorities of “tracking, engaging and supporting” the additional students.

“If this reform is to be implemented effectively, a great deal of innovative thinking and action will be required on the part of schools and other educational providers,” the researchers conclude.

“There are, however, grounds for optimism, as well as pessimism. Of all the educational reforms that originated in the 1960s, ROSLA has been the most enduring and maybe the most successful. We have to hope that the raising of the participation age will also be a lasting success.”

ROSLA was not simply a technical measure but was underpinned by a wider vision, they add. It represented an essential step in bringing about “secondary education for all”, which had been heralded by the 1944 Education Act. But the long delay between the “in principle” agreement in 1964, and the final implementation in 1972, brought conflict, debate and complications. This is being repeated with the long lead-in time to raising the participation age.

Furthermore, the multiple pathways to higher education that were originally envisaged now seem to be separating into more traditional “academic” routes to higher education in contrast to “vocational” avenues into employment. This carries the danger of increasing inequality in the long run, the researchers say