Page last updated at 00:52 GMT, Tuesday, 1 December 2009

'One in four people' in education

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter

School, training and graduates
The big question is how to fund such high numbers in education, say experts

More than one in four of the entire population of England is now in education or training, according to figures from the government.

There are about 14.5 million people in nursery, school, post-16 courses, vocational training and university.

A tough jobs market has seen record numbers staying in education.

"For the first time in our history, a recession is seeing a rise in skill levels and education participation," apprentices minister Iain Wright said.

Social change

The figures mean that for every two people in work, there is now more than one person in education.

And an employment expert says the big unanswered question is how to pay for such unprecedented numbers.

Student numbers graph

This surge in numbers reflects a sustained expansion taking place across the education system - from pre-school through to sixth form, further education college and university.

These expansions have usually been looked at in isolation - but taken collectively it shows the scale of the social and economic changes.

In the space of a couple of generations, the number of years spent in education for many young people has almost doubled.

Until the early 1970s, for many youngsters education was confined to between the ages of five and 15.

Now the expansion in pre-school and higher education places has seen this stretched for many from the age of three to university leaving age.

In the late 1950s, only about a tenth of school leavers achieved five O-levels. Now more than four times that proportion will achieve a university degree.

There have been changes in the way that figures are calculated, but the participation rates in university show how much the landscape has changed, from 3% in 1950 to about 43% in recent years.

With both the Labour and Conservative parties supporting the principle of more places in university, this proportion is set to grow even higher.

High watermarks

According to a breakdown of figures from the DCSF, there are now 8.1 million in school and nursery - with expansion at either end of the age range, with places in pre-school for three and four-year-olds and increasing numbers of young people staying on after taking GCSEs.

Seventies street scene
Until 1972, many youngsters finished education at the age of 15

Among 16 and 17-year-olds, there is the highest ever proportion in full-time education, 82.9% - with concerns about the job market keeping more youngsters in school, college and training places.

This number will increase even further as the leaving age for all pupils is raised to 18. The DCSF says there are at least 4.75 million students in further education colleges and training, including work skills schemes such as Train to Gain.

Within the UK's university student population, about 1.64 million are from England attending an English university.

In the rest of the UK, there are a further 1.9 million children and young people in schools and further education. Within this total there are examples of the expansion of recent years.

In Scotland there has been a 88% increase in students in further education since the mid-1990s.

International view

Putting this into an international perspective, the OECD's head of analysis for education, Andreas Schleicher, said the numbers in education were likely to climb even higher - and that "all our projections have been outstripped by reality".

The increase in well-qualified workers was driven by increased rewards in the labour market, he said, and "there is no reason to believe that growth rates will level off".

Across OECD countries, he said, the number of graduates has almost doubled in the past decade.

In terms of the financial pressures of keeping so many people in education, he said the benefits outweighed the costs.

He said: "Cutting into training opportunities would not save countries any money. On the contrary, the public returns to more training places are positive for all OECD countries - as higher-educated people generate more public economic benefits than their education costs."

Funding doubts

Ian Brinkley, associate director of the Work Foundation think tank, also said that the rising levels of participation reflected an international trend.

But he said the figures also revealed the "truly remarkable growth" in qualifications in the workforce.

In the 1970s, he said, a majority of people in the jobs market had no qualifications. At present, more than 70% of the working population have reached GCSE level or the equivalent.

"There has been a vast increase in jobs using technology, which depends on having an educated workforce," he said.

But the big unresolved issue is how such an expansion in education will be paid for.

"That remains profoundly unclear… we're at crunch point in terms for who pays for such training and education," said Mr Brinkley.

"If it's not the taxpayer, it will mean either firms paying or individuals paying for themselves."

The minister for apprenticeships and 14 to 19 reform in England, Iain Wright, said: "Higher level skills have never been more important to our economic future.

"We are proud that we now have record levels of people taking up high quality college, university and training places. It's vital that this country keeps up with our competitors, not only for the economy but for individuals."

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