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EACEA National Policies Platform


6. Education and Training

6.1 General context

Last update: 22 January 2021

LAST MODIFIED ON: 25/10/2020 - 22:31

On this page
  1. Main trends in young people's participation in education and training
  2. Organisation of the education and training system
  3. Main concepts

Main trends in young people's participation in education and training


There is an upward trend in the participation of young people aged 16-18 in education and training.  

Raising the Participation Age (RPA). Full-time education is compulsory to age 16. From age 16 until their 18th birthday, young people must participate in full- or part-time education or training.  The requirement to participate post-16 was introduced by the Education and Skills Act 2008 in two phases:

  • Since 2013, all young people are required to participate in education or training until the end of the academic year in which they turn 17.
  • Since 2015, this rose to their 18th birthday.

The requirement to participate, according to the statutory guidance issued to local authorities, does not mean that young people necessarily have to stay on in school. Young people have a choice as to how they participate which can be through:

  • full-time study in a school, college or with a training provider
  • full-time work or volunteering (20 hours or more) combined with part-time education or training leading to relevant regulated qualifications
  • an apprenticeship, traineeship or supported internship (p.16).

The Department for Education (DfE) publishes an annual statistical first release (SFR) which contains provisional estimates of participation in education, training and employment for the end of the year. These are DfE’s definitive measures of participation for 16- to 18-year-olds, and are used to monitor progress against DfE’s objectives of raising participation and reducing the number of young people NEET (not in education, employment or training).

Provisional statistics relating to the end of 2019 show that:

  • Between 2018 and 2019 the proportion of 16- to 18-year-olds in education and apprenticeships increased by 0.9 percentage points to 81.6 per cent.
  • At age 16 the participation rate was 94 per cent and at age 17 it was 87.6 per cent, the highest level since consistent records began.
  • Between 2018 and 2019 the proportion of 18-year-olds in  education or apprenticeships went up by 1.0 percentage points to 63.4  per cent. 
  • At end 2019 the provisional estimate of the 16-18 NEET (not in education, employment or training) rate remained stable and is still one of the lowest on record at 6.6% (record low was 6.3% at end 2016).

The Office for National Statistics releases quarterly statistics that include information on young people not in education, employment or training (NEET). The May 2020 statistics state

The percentage of all young people in the UK who were NEET in January to March 2020 was estimated at 11.2%; the proportion was up by 0.2 percentage points compared with January to March 2019 and up by 0.1 percentage points compared with October to December 2019.


Increasing numbers of UK students are gaining international experience during their higher education.

Around half of the outward mobilities which take place in the UK do so within the Erasmus+ programme. Figures from the Publications Office of the European Union state that 16,868 UK students participated in the Erasmus+ programme in 2018 (report published January 2020)  

In 2017/18, 17,048 higher education students participated in the Erasmus+ programme in the UK. This is an increase from 14,803 in 2014/15, reflecting a steady upward trend consistently since 2010. Additionally, in 2018 51,427 participants in 741 UK projects benefited from mobility in higher education, vocational education and training, school education, adult learning and youth for a total grant amount of €121.03 million.

Under the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated with the EU, the UK will continue to participate fully in the current (2014-2020) Erasmus+ as part of the Brexit transition period. According to the European Commission website, the possible participation of the UK in future programmes after 2020 will depend on the outcome of the overall negotiations on the future relationship between the two parties.


The Social Mobility Commission, an advisory non-departmental public body, publishes an annual State of the Nation report. Key points from the 2018-19 report include:

  • Social mobility in Great Britain depends greatly on where you live.
  • Children from working class backgrounds still suffer significant disadvantage compared to their peers from higher-income backgrounds, starting from birth and through every stage of life.
  • Twice the number of disadvantaged 16 to 18-year-olds are in further education than in school sixth forms, meaning further education institutions are a key tool for improving social mobility.
  • Apprenticeships could be a powerful vehicle for social mobility, however the reality is not as clear cut. Those from lower socio-economic backgrounds are clustered in lower returning and lower level apprenticeships. 
  • Once at university, disadvantaged students are much more likely to drop out, due to the costs of studying and cultural barriers.

Organisation of the education and training system

Reforms since 2010 are changing school governance. The Government is encouraging greater collaboration between schools to raise standards through new structures such as multi-academy trusts (MATs) and teaching school alliances. These provide a middle tier of management formerly provided by local authorities. There has been a fundamental shift in the landscape, with academies (including free schools) now forming a substantial minority of primary schools and a majority of secondary schools. Regional schools commissioners, appointed by Government, provide additional oversight. Local authorities retain their duty to ensure a sufficient supply of school places, support school improvement and support vulnerable children and young people.

Full-time education is compulsory to age 16. From age 16 to 18, young people must be in full- or part-time education or training. See ‘raising the participation age’ (RPA) in ‘Main concepts’.

The National Curriculum applies throughout compulsory full-time education but not to education or training from ages 16-19.  

The (International Standard Classification of Education) ISCED is divided into stages 0-8: 

  • ISCED 0 is aged 0-5
  • ISCED 1 is aged 5-11 and encompasses Key Stage 1 and 2, the two key stages of primary education. Primary schools are either maintained schools or academies. Most are mixed-sex.
  • ISCED 2 is equivalent to Key Stage 3 for 11-14 year old’s in secondary education. Secondary schools are either maintained schools or academies and can be either mixed or same-sex.
  • ISCED 3 features Key Stage 4 for 14-16 year olds. This stage is attained through GCSE examinations. Following these exams, young people continue to either sixth form college, a further education college or an apprenticeship/traineeship. This stage is attained through A Level exams or Applied General Qualifications in a vocational area. 
  • ISCED 5-8 refer to higher level education from foundation degrees all the way to doctoral studies.

Outside of higher education, there is a large and diverse range of vocational programmes designed to prepare people for careers and jobs, provide specific skills and ongoing development for people in work, and support career progression. A large proportion of government-supported vocational learning is within apprenticeship frameworks. Workplace training is also funded by employers, through in-company training and learning from independent providers.

Adults who wish to improve their basic skills can take single subject qualifications at different levels. They may also take the Access to Higher Education Diploma, a qualification which prepares people without traditional qualifications for study at university. Adult community learning extends beyond the youth age group, but also includes it. It provides both non-formal learning and formal learning.

An overview of the education system is provided by the Eurydice national description for England in the article ‘Organisation of the Education System and of its Structure’. 

Another useful source is UK Refernet - the UK portal for the ReferNet network which offers comparable information on Vocational Education and Training (VET) across Europe.


Main concepts


The term early leaving from education or training (ELET) is not commonly used. Instead, the term ‘not in education, employment or training’ (NEET) is used. The definitions underlying the term used by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), and reflecting those recommended by the International Labour Office (ILO) are:

Young people - those aged 16 to 24

Education and training – people are considered to be in education or training if any of the following apply:

  • they are enrolled on an education course and are still attending or waiting for term to (re)start
  • they are doing an apprenticeship
  • they are on a government supported employment or training programme
  • they are working or studying towards a qualification
  • they have had job-related training or education in the last four weeks.


‘In employment’ includes all people in some form of paid work, including those working part-time. People not in employment are classed as either unemployed or economically inactive. Unemployed people are those who have been looking for work in the past four weeks and who are available to start work within the next two weeks. Economically inactive people are those who have not been looking for work and/or who are not available to start work. Examples of economically inactive people include those not looking for work because they are students and those who are looking after dependants at home. Anybody who is not in any of the forms of education or training listed above and who is not in employment is considered to be NEET. Consequently, a person identified as NEET will always be either unemployed or economically inactive.

Social inclusion

The focus of the current Conservative government, in office since May 2015, is on social mobility. In a speech on 30 March 2017, the Secretary of State for Education said:

By social mobility I mean stripping away the barriers that anyone faces, so that everybody all over the country, and of many backgrounds, can go as far as their talents mean they’re able to, that they get the best and most stretching education or training, and make the transition into and upwards through a great career.

In 2017, a national plan for improving social mobility through education was published, focusing on closing the attainment gap and the introduction of ‘Opportunity Areas’. The 2018-19 paper on the broader context of social mobility in Britain has a major focus on the education system also. It recognises social mobility has stagnated across the UK in the past four years and outlines the major inequalities that exist across regions.