23 January 2009. UK School Leaving Age Vs US School Leaving Age

So as I was studiously flicking through my New Immigrants handbook, I happened to come across a section pertaining to the fundamentals of education in the US. Much to my relief, they, like the British, also refer to schooling chronology as Primary, Middle and High School. I did however, notice one large disparity which hadn’t occurred to me earlier. The US school-leaving age is 18. It was only then that I remembered my horrified reaction upon being told this years ago, during an early “cross-culture” conversation with my husband. Staying at school til you were 18? I thundered, why, that’s preposterous. How on earth was one expected to get a start in adult life, I wondered……and then the penny dropped. It all made perfect sense now I was on American soil.

The UK considers 16 to be the age at which an adolescent is ready to be considered a “young adult” and begin the ascent into fulfilling adult responsibilities. It is at this age that, once leaving school, 16 year olds across Britain are released into being freely able to purchase cigarettes, engage in intercourse in or out of wedlock, get married….amongst a miscellany of things. By law however, a 16 year old is still considered to be a minor in Britain and cannot drive a car. You must be 17 or over to purchase and drive a car. It is not until the age of 18, where it is legal to buy and consume alcohol, vote, purchase or model for pornography, and become legal for most things in the UK.

This is in stark contrast to legal ages in the US. At the age of 15-16 (variable by state), it is legal to own and drive a car. The age of consent in the US is 17 (variable by state). At age 18 in the US, one can vote, marry, join the army. However it is not until the age of 21 that purchasing and drinking alcohol is legal.

It is certainly illustrious to look at these facts and the consequential behaviours that develop out of these legalities. In Britain, thanks to the national “unveiling” circus which has established itself around the age of 16, most teenagers toy with breaking the law at a much earlier age, simply because of the perceived psychology that there “isn’t long to wait anyway”. It began to dawn on me that if Britain simply kept adolescents at school until the age of 18, there is a high probability that half of these problems would vanish. It seems incredibly absurd that while British 16 year olds do not drive to school but are able to marry, their American counterparts are able to vehicle themselves around their environment with still the promise of more to come in the next few years.

On the other end of the spectrum, where the US has controversially overstretched the legal drinking age in the other direction, the consequences borne out of that is the sheer number of Americans hop-skipping their geographical borders in order to fully inebriate themselves, often to frankly silly and overtly irresponsible measures. Can one really blame them?!

I arrived at this conclusion, that rather than jumping on the British bandwagon of sneering at our “killjoy” American counterparts when it comes to school leaving age, I think it would by and large benefit the UK to bring the leaving age up to 18, along with various other things made legal at 16. It’s all very well saying “this is how it has been for years”, but those legal ages worked properly only up until 50 years ago, when good parenting was commonplace and a 16 year old Briton was a person of such great stature that they were adept even for war.


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