by Julian Gravatt, Deputy Chief Executive, Association of Colleges

The absolute number of 16-17 year-olds participating in education and training in England is currently on an upward trend because the population of young people is growing.  

No-one will be quite sure of the precise population figure until the 2021 census results are published later this year, but the birth number low point in 2002 meant there were fewer 16 to 17 year-olds than ever in 2019. We are now on a rising trend which will continue to the end of the 2020s before another dip into the 2030s. 

Population and participation 

Participation numbers and trends underpin everything else in 16-17 education policy. Student numbers drive funding and student choices determine which teachers, lecturers and trainers are needed and where.  

Participation to the 18th birthday 

The link between population and participation is close but not automatic. Although the law in England says that young people must be in full-time education, a job with an apprenticeship or employed and in part-time training, it is a law with no enforcement and haphazard monitoring. 

The law that raised participation came into effect in 2015 but was passed by Parliament seven years earlier, when Gordon Brown was Prime Minister.  

The argument for compulsory participation was that  a voluntary system would see 9 in 10 young people stay in education or training and leave the final 1 in 10 at a significant disadvantage.  

As things have turned out, England is now above 9 in 10 for full-time education. The percentage in full-time education has crawled slowly upwards from 85% in 2010 to 90.3%, when the law took effect in 2015, to 91.2% at the last count.  

Some 16 and 17year-olds find a job with an apprenticeship, but employer control of funding means they are now 3% of the age group.  

Policymakers have promoted apprenticeships heavily for a decade but introduced a levy and funding reforms that shifted spending and activity away from young people, reaching a low point in 2020 because of the pandemic.  

Trends from 2020 

Back in autumn 2020, there was a mini-boom in full-time education which was what often happens in a recession. Young people hedge their bets and take the best choice available to them. But this hasn’t continued.  

Teacher assessment of GCSEs in two successive summers has resulted in a shift to A-levels, but overall participation rates seem to be static and may even have fallen. Colleges have enrolled fewer 17 and 18-year-olds this year than last.  

And whilst some have seen an uptick in apprenticeship numbers, the common experience is a shift into Jobs without Training.  

The recovery in the job market, in hospitality and retail, has created the easiest job market for 16-17 year-olds in a decade but only at the lowest pay levels.  

One year, of course, doesn’t make a trend so we’re either on a slide from peak full-time education in 2020 or are on a rollercoaster which will see increases later this autumn.  

Spending Review 2021 

Increases in numbers are what the Treasury and DfE assumed when setting budgets in the recent spending review.  

The 26% cash increase in the 16-18 education budget between 2021 and 2024 includes funds for a 10% increase in student numbers. 

A lot of the extra money is for extra teaching hours and for more expensive T Levels but DfE has assumed a rising number of students on a consistently growing participation rate, albeit at a modest rate.  

A Right to Learning for 16-17 year-olds 

What’s still missing, unfortunately, is a proper focus on those who are either in Jobs without Part-Time Training and those Not in Education, Employment or Training.  

Last week’s levelling up white paper promised new free schools for the 1-2% at the top of the academic league tables but nothing for the 4-5% who drop out of education and training at 16.  

There is 30 years of evidence that their prospects in terms of pay, work and health are likely to be worse than those who stay in education and training.  Despite knowing this, there is a lack of action or even proper monitoring by policy makers to protect their interests.  

Full-time education won’t work for everyone, but the participation law has never been just about that.  

For those 16-17 year-olds in Jobs without Training or who are Not in Education, Employment and Training, the time has come to reactivate their right to learning. 


Julian Gravatt is Deputy Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges