The raising of the participation age (RPA) to 17 in 2013 and 18 in 2015 marks a historic expansion of compulsory education. Despite the tendency of New Labour governments to eschew historical understanding and explanation, RPA was conceived with the benefit of an analysis of previous attempts to extend compulsion in schooling. This paper assesses the value of a historical understanding of education policy. The period from inception to the projected implementation of RPA is an extended one which has crossed over the change of government, from Labour to Coalition, in 2010. The shifting emphases and meanings of RPA are not simply technical issues but connect to profound historical and social changes. An analysis of the history of the raising of the school leaving age reveals many points of comparison with the contemporary situation. In a number of key areas it is possible to gain insights into the ways in which the study of the past can help to comprehend the present: the role of human capital, the structures of education, in curriculum development and in terms of preparations for change.