In Europe, one in seven children will leave school or training early. Many subsequently struggle to find a job and end up psychologically stressed. Meanwhile, their unemployment also impacts society and carries economical costs. The European Union (EU) has set a benchmark to decrease early school leaving (ESL) rates to one in ten children by 2020 – and in February 2013, an EU-funded study was launched in nine countries to help achieve this goal.
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“We want to go further than previous studies,” says Christiane Timmerman, project coordinator and director of the Centre for Migration and Intercultural Studies (CeMis) at the University of Antwerp, Belgium. Previous research largely focused on identifying groups with high ESL risk, such as young students with lower socio-economic status, an immigration background or single-parent families.
However, not every individual in those high-risk groups will actually leave school early. Some stay until graduation and a few even excel within their secondary education system. “So we want to move research to the next level and explain those differences,” says Timmerman.
In its first stage, the project will establish a broad view of ESL in Europe, allowing for clear comparisons across regions, by gathering quantitative data through a survey. This survey will be coordinated by Middlesex University in the UK and distributed to approximately 14,000 pupils in seven EU Member States (Belgium, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, the UK, Poland and Sweden) in 2014. After two years, in 2016, the survey will be redistributed to the same students so that the research team can track changes over time and identify the possible risk factors at macro, meso and micro level. “Once collected, the data will form the statistical basis to make predictions based on our theoretical assumptions about who will leave school,” Timmerman explains.
But understanding the scope of the ESL problem does not explain how and why young people reach their decision to leave school. “That decision relies on the interplay of many factors,” Timmerman explains, including macro factors (such as socio-economic background), meso factors (such as the friend network surrounding a given student) and micro factors (such as motivation and engagement). Together, these variants make up what is referred to as mechanisms.
An example mechanism could be the extent to which a student feels respected in school, as previous research has shown that feeling respected is congruent with staying in school. RESL.eu researchers will carry out close to 800 in-depth interviews or focus group discussions with pupils, teachers and education policymakers over the next five years to understand how different mechanisms interact to influence ESL. “By combining qualitative and quantitative research across time we should be able to dig deeper into ESL and find some answers, which will also allow us to make recommendations about which practices or programmes actually work to keep people in schools,” adds Timmerman.
At present, ESL varies greatly between EU countries. In Spain, for instance – where youth unemployment is currently over 50 percent – ESL was 26.5 percent in 2011. In Sweden, on the other hand, it was only 6.6 percent, down from 13 percent in 2006. According to Timmerman, these different contexts pose a research challenge, but also make the RESL.eu project richer. “Because the range of contexts will allow us to identify which mechanisms influence decisions the most across different macro factors,” concludes Timmerman.
Having only started in February 2013, RESL.eu project is still in an early stage. Yet its research team has already gathered information on ESL statistics in its target countries as well as on how the educational systems there are dealing with the problem, and is currently finalising the survey design. Early results from the survey are expected to be available on the project’s website by May 2015.