Most young people successfully navigate the system of primary and secondary education and make transitions into further education and training or into the labour market. However, according to the ‘early leavers from education and training’ indicator, in 2013 some 11.9 % of all 18 to 24-year-olds in the EU finished their education and training with only lower secondary education or less. Moreover, there are substantial differences in early school leaving rates across EU Member States and regions. Reducing early school leaving (ESL) represents one of the headline targets in the Europe 2020 strategy, which aims to reduce the share of early leavers from education and training to below 10 %.
Reducing early school leaving improves the efficiency of education, but it is also highly relevant to the equity objective of ET2020. Early school leaving exemplifies the role of education in perpetuating or breaking cycles of disadvantage: young people from a disadvantaged background or with special educational needs are over-represented amongst early school leavers, who in later life are exposed to heightened risks of unemployment, poverty and social exclusion.
The decision to leave initial education is influenced not only by potentially limited or non-attractive prospects of further education and the more appealing alternatives offered by the youth labour market, but also by the cumulative negative past experiences of a long trajectory through primary and secondary school. Consequently, the issue of early school leaving draws attention to every characteristic of the education system that influences the quality and equity of educational trajectories up to secondary education. These include, for example: the frequency and abruptness of transitions, the ways of grouping students, unequal and/or limited access to adequate support and guidance, and limited availability of well-developed systems of early childhood education and care and of vocational education and training.
Given the diversity and cumulative nature of factors that can enhance the chances of early drop out requires a comprehensive multi-strand policy response. The Council Recommendation on policies to reduce early school leaving (2011) emphasised the importance of developing comprehensive education strategies to minimise early drop out that would reach all groups of children, especially those at higher risk of early school leaving (such as children with a socioeconomically disadvantaged, migrant or Roma background, or with special educational needs). Effective policies against early school leaving need to be adopted at all levels of education and should encompass a combination of prevention, intervention and compensation policies. Moreover, the considerable geographical variation of early school leaving rates within education systems in EU Member States indicates a need for local policies. Any viable local approach to tackling early school leaving needs to be cross-sectoral, involving the local education system, employers, labour market services and social services. Such cooperation makes it possible to implement early warning systems capable of triggering personalised prevention and intervention measures. Cross-sectoral cooperation is also necessary to compensate for early school leaving by creating flexible alternative pathways to gaining the qualifications necessary for transitions to further education or employment.