Original publication: March 2019
Panteia: Amber VAN DER GRAAF, Paul VROONHOF, Georgios ROULLIS, Federica VELLI
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Decreasing early school leaving (ESL) is one of the current priorities of the European Union in the field of education and training. ESL is a problem that affects all Member States to different degrees and which has serious repercussions on young people as well as for society at large. Indeed, young people between 18 and 24 who did not attain lower secondary education and who are not receiving any education or training can face difficulties when finding employment as well as have limited employment prospects. ESL is also associated with disengagement from social, political and cultural activities, which further compromises the situation of an early school leaver. In fact, ESL is a multifaceted phenomenon which comes into existence because a number of factors, most notably, a person’s socio-economic situation, a family’s educational background, market push and pull factors but also the relationship with the school and the programmes offered, and not less for individual reasons.

How to tackle early school leaving in the EU

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With the objective to reduce ESL throughout the Union, the EU set the objective to decrease the level of early school leavers to 10% within the Europe 2020 strategy. Later in 2011, the Council issued a Recommendation on reducing early school leaving inviting the Member States to adopt policies for prevention, intervention and reintegration. Within this context, this study aims to provide a current representation of the problem of ESL since the adoption of the abovementioned Recommendation while updating the 2011 study of the European Parliament ‘Reducing early school leaving in the EU’.[1]


The present study aims to provide an update of the 2011 European Parliament Study ‘Reducing early school leaving in the EU’ and:

  • Present current developments of early school leaving in the European Union, outlining the main causes and drivers of the problem ;
  • Understand the policies adopted by the Member States striving to prevent and/or intervene on the problem, or focused at the re-integration of early school leavers in education;
  • Explore the relation between Member States’ investment in education and the rate of ESL;
  • Identify future challenges and provide recommendations on how to tackle ESL.

In order to do so, this study is based on international as well as national literature on the topic of ESL and an in-depth analysis of six Member States: Greece, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Slovakia, and Sweden. Information were gathered through desk research as well as semi-structured interviews with experts at the national and European level.

Early School Leaving in the EU since 2011

A number of countries have made much progress since 2011 in reducing their rates of ESL. Some of the top performers in terms of reducing their rates of ESL are Portugal (with a reduction in ESL of 10.4%), Spain (reduction of 8%), and Greece (reduction of 6.9%). Ireland is not far behind in this regard, with a reduction of 5.7% in ESL between 2011 and 2017.

Countries which struggled more with ESL than the European average are in shorter supply. Nevertheless, certain Member States experienced increases in ESL between 2011 and 2017. Slovakia for example, experienced the highest increase in ESL with 4.2%. Luxembourg, Hungary, and Sweden in turn all saw a more modest rise in their national ESL rates with 1.1%.

Drivers and causes of ESL

Drivers of early school leaving are often categorised into three levels: Individual level factors, which this study understands as all those factors, which affect the individual student more directly. Institutional level factors, which relate to the school or VET institution environment, the educational practices, and teachers. And national macro level factors that focus on contextual factors affecting early school leaving.

Since 2011, the individual level drivers have not changed much over time. The influence of gender and nationality on an individual’s likeliness of leaving school early are broadly recognised. The driver of socio-economic background was found to be one of the strongest drivers of ESL by academic research, and is also commonly cited as an individual level cause of ESL across the EU.

System level drivers, which relate to the school and educational institution levels on the other hand, vary more per country, and some of these have changed since 2011. The school environments, teaching practices, and quality of teachers appear to vary more across countries, and even within regions within countries.

Since 2011, however, the effects of the economic crisis have settled to a large degree, and labour markets exercise different push and pull forces on students compared to 2011, when unemployment, and especially youth unemployment was higher in the EU. This driver and the effect of the unemployment rate on the decision to leave school early interacts strongly with a pupil’s socio-economic background.

Policy interventions to tackle Early School Leaving

Policies affecting ESL can be divided in measures having a preventative or interventive nature or policies aimed at the re-integration of students in education. These measures tend to target the national structural level, or the system level, though this means the policies also affect individual students.

Based on the current study there does not appear to be much specific national policy focus on early school leaving specifically; rather early school leaving policies are often related to broader policy programmes on improving education and social inclusion, reducing poverty, and labour market policies.

Analysing the impacts of different policy interventions on early school leaving is a complicated process and difficult. The reason for this being that early school leaving is a complex process itself, born of many different factors and drivers from the individual, system, and national macro level. To identify the effect of a single individual policy on this process is methodologically difficult to do; one cannot rule out interaction effects with other policies and other drivers.

What can be said however is that some of the individual level drivers remain similar if not the same across countries. This suggests that certain types of policies may be useful to target certain types of common challenges.

There appear to be trends in which types of policy approaches are used to address certain types of challenges. The connection between types of drivers and types of policy interventions to address those drivers could be an interesting point for further, deeper study.

The trends in the use of certain policy types is reflected back in EU level research as well. All EU countries have policies in place, which somehow address or help to reduce early school leaving. EU level research documents show that common practices to reduce early school leaving centre on improving the quality of teachers and teaching, better access to good quality early childhood education and care (ECEC), and better provision of career and educational guidance in schools. At a national level, implementing databases to monitor absenteeism of students is also cited as a general and useful approach to reducing ESL, as is better cooperation between different governmental department and institutions.

Public Investment on education and Early School Leaving

Based on the numbers provided, it appears that the biggest spenders on education include Sweden (7.04%), Finland (6.75%), Belgium (6.43%), France (5.47%), and Austria (5.43%). The lowest expenditure on education include Romania (2.72%), Greece (3.68%), Ireland (3.77%), and the Czech Republic (3.79%).

Despite being one of the highest spenders when it comes to education, Sweden demonstrates an increase in the rate of Early School Leaving. Furthermore, some of the lower spenders on education (based on the data used here), include Greece and Ireland, which are also amongst the top performers in terms of reducing the rates of ESL. What should be noted is that a large proportion of spending on education comes from private sources in Greece. This suggests that the landscape of investment in education, and its relationship with ESL should be examined in further detail.

The data at hand suggests that the relationship between public investment in education and reducing early school leaving is not immediately evident, no linear correlation appears. This is perhaps not so surprising given that drivers from other levels and policy fields also contribute to ESL.

It is therefore not so much a question of how much you spend, but rather, what you spend on it. More efficient and targeted spending based on needs of pupils in a country, could be a good starting point for approaching public expenditure to reduce ESL. The examples provided by Greece and Ireland could be further examined. According to information received during the study, Portugal would also be a relevant country to investigate further, as of course are countries with a (longer-time) low level of ESL.

The lack of immediate relationship between ESL rates and spending on education may suggest that to properly investigate the relationship, the public investment in other areas such as the labour market, or social inclusion and the reduction of poverty are also important to consider in order to establish a more accurate insight on the correlation between public investment and ESL.

Future Challenges and Recommendations

On the basis of the overview on the current situation of ESL in Europe and of a review of the Member States’ policies to tackle ESL, in particular of six of them, persisting challenges can primarily be addressed by:

  • Setting up registers on absenteeism to be able to monitor ESL systematically, and to establish targeted national and system level responses.
  •  Promoting more sustained, cross-governmental cooperation to foster a comprehensive policy approach.
  • Research confirms the need to keeping adopting comprehensive strategies to target early school leaving. Countries should ideally adopt policies that target youth, social inclusion, education, and labour market areas. A comprehensive approach would ideally also focus on helping the individual pupil, supporting schools at the system level, and target national level drivers.
  • Look at the needs of students at the local level when designing policies and programme
  • More understanding and further efforts by schools to make education and training more accessible to harder to reach groups of students.
  • Focus the efforts at the national and the system level to help the groups of students most at risk to reduce the chances of their leaving school or training early
  • To provide training and guidance to teachers in how to keep engaging students from different backgrounds.
  • Better and more continuous training of teachers in recognising the signs of students at risk of dropping out.
  • For the European Parliament a recommendation would be to try to promote the implementation of such policy measures, and to work with other EU institutions to raise the awareness of the different funds and EU supports, which are available to help end users in Member States to set up such policies.

[1]        European Parliament, Directorate General for Internal Policies, Policy Department B ‘Reducing Early School leaving in the EU’ (2011). Available at: https://publications.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/ /publication/b0be26a1-8c22-4075-ba1f-f8f9840fe325/language-en/format-PDF/source-84695522

Link to the full study: http://bit.ly/629-193

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