Early school leaving is an urgent and serious problem, both for individuals and society as a whole. The EU Member States work together to reduce the number of pupils who drop out before the end of secondary education.
There are many reasons – often highly individual – why some young people give up education and training prematurely: learning difficulties, social problems or a lack of motivation, guidance or support.
Although the situation varies in different EU countries, the social phenomenon of early school leaving follows certain patterns. Early school leavers are more likely to have a lower socio-economic status or to belong to vulnerable social groups. On average, the rate of early school leaving in Europe is double for youth from migrant backgrounds compared to native youth. In addition, male students are more likely to drop out of school education.
However, the impacts of individual and social conditions are also affected by the set-up of the educational system and the environment in individual schools. Since there is not a single reason for leaving education or vocational training, there are no easy answers.
Low levels of education do not only have severe consequences for the young people concerned, but also high economic and social costs for society as a whole. In addition to current demographic changes, European countries cannot afford this enormous waste of talent.
Policies to reduce early school leaving must address all its triggers and combine education and social policy, youth work and health related aspects such as substance abuse, mental or emotional problems. They should be evidence-based and be adaptable to local, regional and national conditions. Developing such policies requires strong political commitment but also solid knowledge of early school leaving processes.
While some countries in Europe already implement comprehensive strategies to tackle early school leaving and see steady decline in their early school leaving rates, others still lack such comprehensive approaches. Often policies do not address all obstacles to school success, focusing on compensatory measures such as second chance schools and investing insufficiently in the prevention of school drop-out.
In June 2010 the European heads of state and government adopted the Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. In this context, they agreed on reducing the share of early school leavers to less than 10% Europe-wide by 2020.
In June 2011 the Education Council adopted a Recommendation which proposes a framework for coherent, comprehensive and evidence based policies against early school leaving. The Recommendation will support Member States in designing their policies. They agreed to work together and to facilitate an exchange of practices and knowledge on the most effective ways to combat early school leaving. Since December 2011 a Thematic Working Group on early school leaving, assembling nearly all EU Member States plus Norway, Iceland Croatia and Turkey, and composed of policy makers and practitioners, looks at good practice examples in Europe and exchanges experiences in reducing early school leaving.
In March 2012 the Commission organised a European conference on policies to reduce early school leaving, which attracted more than 300 participants from across Europe. One year later, in March 2013, the Thematic Working Group on ESL organised the first Peer Review on comprehensive policies to reduce early school leaving.