While changes to the country's exam system have hogged the headlines, another big reform is on the way.

The days when you could leave school at 16, going out to get a job and not worrying about education anymore are about to end.

From this year, the government is increasing the age to which all young people in England must continue in education or training, requiring them to continue until the end of the academic year in which they turn 17. By 2015, they must stay on until their 18th birthday.

It's a radical change, intended to help youngsters increase their career options, but principal of Reading College Lesley Donoghue thinks the policy - called Raising the Participation Age (RPA) - has been misunderstood.

She said: "The key message that I would like all parents and students to go away with is that RPA does not affect the school leaving age in the slightest. Instead, it aims to offer young people the opportunity to continue developing skills and qualifications to encourage learning beyond 16.

"Students can stay at school, study at college, go to the workplace, undertake apprenticeships or work towards accreditations. RPA makes young people think about their future and what they want to achieve in life. 

"By working together, collaborating with students, their parents and career counsellors, we can make sure every young person is engaged in developing their learning and ultimately their career."

The idea of youngsters remaining in education until 18 goes back to a proposal by Liberal politician Herbert Fisher in 1918. Never implemented, it took 90 years before the Labour government passed the legislation, with the coalition reaffirming their commitment to it back in 2010.

Ms Donoghue said: "Unfortunately many young people today are leaving education and applying for jobs without the right skillset that employers are looking for.

"This is difficult start to working life is damaging to confidence levels and can be detrimental to their on-going success."

Research by the Audit Commission in 2008 showed that young people not in education, employment or training (NEETs) are more likely to be out of work later in life and to experience social exclusion.

Emma Nicholson from The Prince's Trust youth charity said: "Many of the young people we work with say that they regret leaving school before 18, so RPA will ensure that young people can learn for longer.

"However, there are always young people who struggle at school or are at risk of exclusion. This is where organisations like The Prince's Trust can continue to provide a vital role, helping them to boost their skills to stay in education, or go into work and training."

RPA at a glance

- Choices available under RPA will be full-time study with school, college or training providers; full-time work or volunteering combined with part-time education or training; an apprenticeship.

- The government claims that student numbers will not be vastly increased, as most 16-year-olds stay on at school already.

- The change in law means, from 2015, that you need to stay in education or training until your 18th birthday (from 2015) or until you gain a Level 3 qualification (which is equivalent to 2 A Levels).

- Impartial careers advice is available at nationalcareersservice.direct.gov.uk or by calling 0800 100 900.

- A 16-19 Bursary Fund is available, providing money to people needing the most help. Visit gov.uk/1619-bursary-fund