Early school leaving (ESL) still challenges European societies having potentially significant effects on a learner’s professional and personal development later in life. In 2011, ESL levels in Europe were still at 13.5% (Eurostat). Leaving school early may negatively affect an individual’s breath of options for achieving his/her full potential, pursuing an invigorating and satisfying career, assuming a personally fulfilling role in the community, and generally implementing dreams.

Varied definitions of ESL exist. This proposal assumes the EU definition of not achieving secondary education, namely achieving only pre-primary, primary, lower secondary or a short upper secondary education of less than 2 yearsor having only pre-vocational or vocational education that does not lead to an upper secondary degree.

The completion of at least obligatory levels of education, which in many countries includes 9 years of primary and secondary schooling, or even better secondary education by, ideally, the wide majority of the population is linked by governments and international organizations (OECD) to higher productivity of a society and economy as a whole and is one of the reasons behind national policies on free and obligatory primary and secondary education.

Recognizing the potentially adverse effects of ESL at the personal and societal levels the European Commission has renewed as a key target for education and training the reduction of ESL to less than 10% by 2020, following an earlier policy from 2003 that called for reduction to 10% by 2010. Several countries, e.g. Sweden and the Czech Republic, already meet this goal (ESL rates 6.7% and 4.9% respectively, source Eurostat 2011). Others, such as Greece and France, could still enhance results (rates 13.1% and 12% respectively). The success of programs already in place in some countries allows optimism for future performance and underscores the need for rigorous and enhanced strategies at the national and European levels.

The factors that lead to ESL vary from one country to another and from urban to rural areas. Learners may be attracted out of school by jobs with low entry level skill requirements, for example in the tourism sector. Other factors include the socio-economic background of the family; the value the family places on education and the perceived cost-benefit ratio; the educational level of parents, their interest in their child’s education, and their capacity to help with homework; the time parents have available for communicating with their children; teacher capacity to identify and address ESL; the quality of teacher communication with their students, and more.

Many of the above factors reach well beyond the school environment and are related family support, background, life conditions, and stimulation. Parents, teachers, and social networks including extended families, in addition to how learners relate to the school environment and how they perceive the relation of the curriculum with real life, play an important role in staying in school.

Challenges that minorities face in relation to ESL cannot be ignored. In some countries, for example in Greece, immigrants are faced with high rates of ESL. According to Eurostat 2011 data, the ESL rate in Greece is 13,4% but if minorities are not considered the rate is 3,5%, highlighting a striking difference. This is not the case in other countries, such as Sweden, where the ESL rate is 6,7%, below the 10% target set by the EC, with no remarkable difference between natives and migrants.

Some research results show that issues faced by immigrants include a poor understanding of the curriculum and school system in their new country of residence, behavior and attitudes towards learning (Sacker, Schoon, and Bartley 2002) and specifically placing low value to education, and difficulties in their communication with teachers, possible due in part to language and cultural barriers. Migrant parents may be viewed as “difficult”, “indifferent”, and “hard to reach” (Crozier and Davies 2007). However, researchers point out that schools, rather than parents, may be hard to reach in reality (A. Harris, H. Goodall).

The above demonstrates that factors that affect ESL may differ significantly from one cultural environment to another. However, one factor that emerges as particularly significant in a number of reports is parental engagement (Fan and Chen 2001, Sylva et all 2004). Quality and nature of parental involvement is very important (Abouchaar 2003).

Addressing ESL requires a thorough understanding of the factors that contribute to leaving school in various contexts. It further requires strategies that address the life conditions, social web, educational background, perceptions, and resources available to learners, to their parents and families, and to their teachers.


This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This communication 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.