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Teachers’ Guidelines

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An overview of the current situation of early school leaving in Europe

Understanding Early School Leaving

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1 Analysis of Major Trends in School Leaving in Europe
The European Union defines early school leavers as people aged 18-24 who have only lower secondary education or less and are no longer in education or training. The definition was agreed by EU Education Ministers in the Council in 2003 (Council conclusions on "Reference levels of European Average Performance in Education and Training (Benchmarks)", May 2003). Early school leavers are therefore those who have only achieved pre-primary, primary, lower secondary or a short upper secondary education of less than 2 years (Levels 0, 1, 2 or 3c short in the United Nations' International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) (Early school leaving in Europe).

Early school leaving can take several forms. It includes young people who have dropped out of school before the end of the compulsory education, those who have completed compulsory schooling, but have not gained an upper secondary qualification, and those who have followed pre-vocational or vocational courses which did not lead to a qualification equivalent to upper secondary level (Early school leaving in Europe).

Early school leaving is a severe issue for any country to face. It is the result of a gradual disengagement process of students from school due to various interrelated factors that include lack of motivation, poor educational performance and delinquent behavior – often in connection with a difficult socioeconomic background and certain school practices (Eurydice Brief).

Early school leaving is linked to unemployment, social exclusion, poverty and poor health. There are many reasons why some young people give up education and training prematurely: personal or family problems, learning difficulties, or a fragile socio-economic situation. The way the educational system is set up, school climate and teacher-pupil relations are also important factors (Early School Leaving, EU).

The typical evolution of a young person into an early school leaver was (and, according to our research with teachers still is) frequently described as follows: The pupil comes from a poorly educated, socially and economically disadvantaged background which affords little support. Failure at school in the early stages leads to hostile attitude to school, which typically ends in chronic absenteeism. This is often reinforced by an out-of-school situation with few controls and in which the peer group plays a significant role. After a phase of truancy and school reports that reflect the pupil’s lack of attendance, he/she ultimately leaves school early. This description, which focused primarily on the individual, only points to clear failings in the 'professionalization' of teachers. In particular, it hides any structural failings, and largely absolves the school (as institution) of responsibility. Yet early school leaving – in the current research consensus – is a deep-seated and far more complex phenomenon with manifold causes (Erna Nairz-Wirth, 2015).

Since there is not a single reason for early school leaving, there are no easy answers. Policies to reduce early school leaving must address a range of triggers and combine education and social policy, youth work and health related aspects such as drug use or mental and emotional problems (Early School Leaving, EU).

EU countries have committed to reducing the average share of early school leavers to less than 10 % by 2020. The educational achievement of young people is essential for the employment prospects of every young person. It is important for the growth of our economy and for social cohesion, especially at a time when the current financial and economic crisis is having a serious impact on young people and their families. Investing in education helps to break the cycle of deprivation and poverty leading to the social exclusion of too many young people across Europe (Reducing early school leaving: Key messages and policy support. Final Report of the Thematic Working Group on Early School Leaving, 2013).
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This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This web site reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.