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02 September 2020

Extending compulsory schooling for teenagers may be bad for long-term mental health

Raising the minimum school leaving age may have a long-term adverse impact on the mental health of some individuals

Empty school hallway

Raising the minimum school leaving age may have a long-term adverse impact on the mental health of some individuals, according to a new study by King’s. 

The study, by Dr Mauricio Avendano, Professor at the King’s School of Global Health and Social Medicine, Dr Augustin de Coulon, Senior Lecturer at King’s Business School and Vahe Nafilyan, PhD candidate at King’s Business School, compared available data on educational and long-term health outcomes  for people in England and Wales who turned sixteen in the years immediately before and after 1972, the year the school leaving age was raised from 15 to 16.   

They found little evidence that spending more time in education had a positive impact on mental health.  In fact, according to their analysis of one longitudinal survey, 17.4 per cent of those who at 16 said they wished they could have left school the year before were, by age 50, reporting symptoms of depression or anxiety consistent with a clinical diagnosis. This compared to 13.5 per cent for those who had left at school at 16 but said they were happy with remaining the extra year.

The data also showed a limited impact on overall levels of attainment. Although almost a fifth more students stayed in school until 16 following the reform, the total number of students achieving a Certificate of Secondary Education qualification increased by only nine percentage points, and the numbers achieving higher level academic qualifications achieved by less still.

The team say their findings suggest that policy makers seeking to increase educational attainment among older teenagers should consider alternatives to mandatory school education, such as incentive-based approaches, or by developing more flexible training routes.

Dr Mauricio Avendano, Professor at the King’s School of Global Health and Social Medicine explains “generally, more time in education correlates with better health outcomes, including in mental health.  But while the 1972 changes to the minimum school leaving age had some of their intended effect by increasing the years people spent at school, this did not translate into better mental health in the long-run. Some of this may be due to the fact that it constrained young people’s choices around the labour market early and ultimately, the additional schooling they gained did not have much impact on their chance to of progressing to further education, better jobs or higher earnings.”

The team suggest that the mental health impact may be the result of damage to the self-esteem and self-confidence of adolescents forced to remain in a classroom environment in which they were struggling to progress. They add that delayed entry to the labour market and financial independence could also have been a cause of frustration at a time when school leavers had relatively few difficulties finding employment.

Dr Augustin de Coulon adds: “education policy is usually made by those who have succeeded at school. This data cautions us to empathise more with those who struggle: the around 180,000 16 year olds who leave education every year without achieving a good grade at GCSE in Maths and English. In particular, it suggests that we should carefully consider the long-term implications of the current policy of requiring teenagers to re-sit Maths and English GCSE right up to the age of 18 to achieve an acceptable pass.”

“Extra support and new teaching approaches may be required to ensure that the process leaves them with the right skills, rather than a sense of failure.” 

“Other countries considering raising the school leaving age should consider whether more time in the classroom is the right answer for everyone.”

In this story

Mauricio Avendano

Visiting Professor of Public Policy & Global Health

Augustin De Coulon

Senior Lecturer in Economics