The term Early School Leaving has been used in Ireland since 1971 when Tomás Roseingrave conducted research into the education system (Byrne & Smyth, 2010). A number of terms persist in the literature on ESL, they include dropout, unqualified, school failure and school withdrawal. However, these terms though closely related to ESL, are deemed unacceptable to many as Early School Leavers may have made a decision to continue their education or training in other ways (Lally, 2012).
Early School Leaving appears across articles on employment, education, justice and health services. The definitions changed over time, in 1998 the Irish definition was “leaving school before the age of 15 or without passing five subjects in state examinations” (Government of Ireland, 1998). The current legal definition in Ireland is ‘non-participation in school before a young person reaches the age of 16 or before completing three years post-primary education, or whichever is later’ (Government of Ireland, 2000). The National Youth Council of Ireland defines ESL as ‘leaving the education system without a minimum of five passes in the Leaving Certificate or equivalent qualification’ (NYCI, 2001). The EU definition of ESL is a practical one as the member states all have a range of definitions, which drives their own strategies and policies to address the issue. “ESL is a multi-faceted and complex problem caused by increased disengagement in the education system” (European Commission, 2013). European statistics measure early leaving rates as the percentage of 18 to 24 year-olds with only lower secondary education i.e. to Junior Certificate or less and who are no longer in education or training.
Extensive research into the factors leading to ESL indicate that it is never a single factor but a number of “risk factors” associated. The risk is not viewed as a property of the child but thought to exist in the interactions among the systems surrounding the child (Finn and Rock, 1997). Bronfenbrenner’s (1979, 1986, 1994) Ecological Systems Theory is a relative theory on ESL as he considered the multiple systems that surround children. Some researchers see ESL as a disease to be cured but Stokes (2003) criticised these an epidemiological approaches stating that Early School Leavers are a heterogeneous (varied/mixed) group rather than a homogenous (standard) group (Stokes, 2003).
Some international literature on ESL focused on the individual factors or the cultural influences on completing school and potentially blame the young person or their families for non-completion. A. M. Nevala and J. Hawley (2011) state that ESL is typically caused by increased disengagement, the reasons can be external/internal from personal, social, economic, geographical, educational or family-related. For many people, the results vary from bullying or ‘falling in with the wrong crowd’, to private or family problems (Nevala and Hawley, 2011). The literature has found that the greater number of risks being experienced by an individual, the higher the risk of ESL (McGarr, 2010). Longitudinal studies have given a better understanding and (in keeping with Bronfenbrenner’s 1979, 1986, 1994) focus on individual, gender, family and school factors and find that the disengagement from school in a gradual process (Byrne and Smyth, 2010).
2.3.1 Individual and family factors
ESL often takes places within the concept of “educational disadvantage”. Educational disadvantage is defined in the 1998 Education Act as:
“…the impediments to education arising from social or economic disadvantage which prevent student from deriving appropriate benefits from education” (Government of Ireland, 1998).
There are consistent findings within the research that ESL is strongly associated with low socio-economic status (European Parliament, 2011). A huge number of young people who leave school early are from families who live in poverty or in disadvantaged areas, dependent on social welfare and/or where the parents are in poorly paid employment. In fact, 18% of senior primary pupils in a school in Dublin stated that they were either – often, very often or always too hungry to concentrate on their work (Downes et al., 2006). Hence, higher rates of ESL, where students are lacking most basic needs in order to engage in learning. Roma and Irish Travellers are often identified as the most disadvantaged in education and have greater risks of leaving early (European Commission, 2013).
Educational performance comes up as a high predictor of ESL in most research (Rumberger and Lim, 2008; European Parliament, 2011; European Commission, 2013). Lyche (2010) considered the link between educational performance and ESL and found that students with good grades in primary school were better prepared for upper second level education. Therefore, those who find it difficult to meet academic demands are most likely to leave (Rumberger, 1995). Grades are strongly influenced by social background, gender, language and parents education.
Bad behaviour and absenteeism are other factors to be considered (Ward, Williams & van Ours, 2015). In Eivers et al., (2000) Irish study on 54 Early School Leavers; 1/5 of them had been suspended in primary school and 1/2 had been suspended in post-primary school. Irish research found that absenteeism is a major factor leading to ESL. Students with poor attendance in Junior Cycle are twice as likely to leave at the end of 3rd year (Byrne and Smyth, 2010).
Earlier studies indicated that schools had little impact on ESL compared with family status and structure (Coleman et al., 1966). Research on school effects from the 1970s onwards have highlighted significant variation across the characteristics of the schools. As well as school status, structure and size, other school factors considered in the research are class streaming, difficulties transitioning between primary and post-primary, expectations, inclusiveness, code of behaviour and teacher-student relationships. Teacher-student relationships are considered the face of the education system (Stokes, 2003). The school and its teachers through their teaching methods and their relationships with students can have a significant and direct influence on the young person’s decision to leave early (Rutter et al., 1979). Smyth (1998) reports that absenteeism rates and ESL was higher where students have negative interactions with their teachers. Early School Leavers’ dislike school because of ill-treatment or lack of support by teachers.
In fact, a significant part of the problem can be attributed to lack of support, guidance as well as curriculum and syllabus, which often doesn’t offer enough options for varied courses, experiential and other hands-on, life learning opportunities. McCoy and Smyth (2005) comment that the Irish education system is largely academic, with underdeveloped links between the school and workplace. Their main suggestion was to provide more flexible arrangements to students to combine school and work (McCoy and Smyth, 2005).
2.4 Consequences of leaving school early
Early School Leavers’ are more likely to be unemployed, to draw on social welfare or have lower paid jobs. They often have low levels of health and are at risk of suffering from anxiety or depression (Eivers et al., 2000). This generates a significant cost to the state with a higher demand on the health system. A high number of female Early School Leaver’s fall pregnant young, the increases in birth rates increase the school-going population by roughly 9%, which results in further strains on the education system, when resources are already being stretched. There is a high link between ESL and crime, in the US, one third of inmates did not graduate from high school (Harlow, 2003). While in Ireland, 80% of 108 inmates interviewed were Early School Leavers (O’ Mahoney, 1997), this high rate of crime causes an increase of state expenditure on our Justice systems.
2.5.1 European Polices
The literature finds that the alleviation of ESL is a policy priority in a wide range of documents for Europe. A European Framework of actions and targets was established as a result of their recognition on the urgency to address the issue. One of the key focuses of EU education plans introduced in the Lisbon strategy was reducing the EU average to 10 % by 2010. However, this target was not met and in June 2010 the European heads of state and governments adopted a new strategy called ET 2020: the European Strategic Framework for Education and Training 2020. The 10 % target on ESL was labelled as one of the main targets underpinning this strategy. Education and training also play a key part in this strategy, focusing on smart, sustainable jobs. The strategy is designed to increase the EU’s growth and bring high levels of employment and social cohesion. The research shows that the situation on ESL varies greatly from country to country. By 2009, eight countries had reached a level of ESL that was below the EU’s 10 % target -Czech Republic, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Austria, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia and Finland (European Commission, 2009). These countries are being encouraged to continue working on reducing ESL.
The Development of Vocational Training stated that the EU statistics had only allowed for a quantification of the overall phenomenon (Cedefop, 2016). They carried out a qualitative study in May 2016 in 16 countries, some of which were carried out in Ireland. They conducted 755 interviews with ministries, statistical offices, chambers, school heads, teachers, and students. 44 evidence based measures were selected for in-depth analysis. This study was to supply support to policy makers and education providers. They found that to tackle ESL effectively understanding learner’s profiles, identifying the early signs of ESL and providing tailored interventions would achieve better outcomes (RESL.eu, 2018).
2.5.2 Irish Framework
Research shows that during the 1990’s it was the top of the social policy agenda in Ireland (Fleming and Murphy, 2000). ESL is among the most serious economic and social problems which this state must address (NESF, 1997, p. 3). As part of the Education Act 1998, the Government developed a number of ways of reducing the number of young people with no qualifications and has been working on this since. Ireland’s National Action Plan to reduce poverty and achieve social inclusion 2015-2017 echoes commitments made in ET 2020 and aims to reduce the percentage of 18-24 year olds with lower secondary education and who are not in further education and training to 8% by 2020 (Office of Social Inclusion, 2017). Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures: the National policy framework for children and young people 2014-2020; outcome 2 – achieving in all areas of learning and development and outcome 4 – economic security and opportunity is another policy strongly linked to education and ESL (DYCA, 2018).
2.6 Statistics on ESL
2.6.1 General – European and Irish
Past literature from Europe suggests an increase in student retention over the years. In 2004, 14% of those aged 18-24 years were defined as Early School Leavers (European Commission, 2009). The Final Report of the Thematic Working Group on Early School Leaving: Reducing Early School Leaving – key messages and policy support; reported a drop to 12.7% in 2012 (European Commission, 2013). The latest EU figures in the Educational Attainment Thematic Report 2017 show that in 2016, 11% of all 18-24 year olds were classified as Early School Leavers (CSO, 2018).
Since the economic downturn in 2008, figures in young people in Senior Cycle have increased in Ireland and retention is now at more than 90%, the highest rate ever. Of the 28 EU member states, Ireland is currently ranked 7th, with 6% of 18-24 year olds classified as Early School Leavers (CSO, 2018). This represents an increase in school retention; as the early 2000s saw one in every five students leaving school each year and Byrne and Smyth (2010) indicated that in 2007, 14% of students left school early in Ireland (Byrne and Smyth, 2010).
2.6.2 School Status Statistics from an Irish context
The report on retention rates of entry cohort 2011 who sat their Leaving Certificate examination in 2016 or 2017, gives a clear breakdown of ESL by school type, status. Of the 60,293 pupils enrolled in 2011, 91.6% sat their Leaving Certificate in 2016 or 2017. Secondary fee-paying schools and Community/Comprehensive school had the highest retention rate both in the 90’s percentile, however, Vocational school rates were at 88.4%. From the cohort, DEIS schools saw their retention rate to the Leaving Certificate rise to 85%, while for non-DEIS schools it was 93.5%. DEIS (an Action Plan for Educational Inclusion ‘Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools’) (Archer & Sofroniou, 2008). It was noted that while there has been a rise, the gap is still at 8.5% as the comparable results for 2010 cohort were 84.4% for DEIS and 92.9% for non-DEIS. Research shows that the majority of Early School Leavers in DEIS schools leave between 5th and 6th year. The report also shows retention levels by county – Sligo had the highest rate 93.7%, while Longford had the lowest at 87.3%, Wexford stood at 90.7% (DES, 2016; DES, 2018).
2.7 Services and Initiatives in Ireland
The literature shows that successful measures against ESL are: preventive – which seek to address risk factors that could have a negative effect on young people’s education. Intervention measures, that support a student while they are in school and compensation measures are those that seek to integrate early leavers back into education and training (Cedefop, 2016).
2.7.1 Targeting programmes
In 2005, Ireland implemented DEIS, an integrated multi-faceted strategy to address educational disadvantage from pre-school through to completion of upper post-primary and seeks to tackle ESL. Priority is given to early intervention measures. Support is given to parents and families to become more involved in children’s education. Planning, target-setting and measurement of progress and outcomes are in place for students (Archer & Sofroniou, 2008). Preventative measures include the involvement of pre-schools. Since 2010, the early childhood care and education (ECCE) initiative offers one-year free pre-schooling to all children in the year prior to enrolment in primary education.
2.7.2 Measures at family level
In 2011, Tusla – the Child and Family Agency integrated three strands to improve school participation, attendance and retention. Education Welfare Service, Home School Community Liaison (HSCL) and School Completion Programme (SCP). These are preventative and intervention strategies and a major component of DEIS status school. HSCL and SCP target pupils identified as at-risk of not reaching their potential in the educational system due to background characteristics (DES, 2006)
Pastoral Care Teams operate in many post-primary schools and involve a range of school personnel (Principal, HSCL, Guidance Counsellor, SCP project workers) as well as nurses and youth workers. These professionals are dedicated to and work intensively with identified students who require special education or therapy during the school day.
The ‘whole school approach’ builds on joint commitment from all staff to improve the school and its learning environment. It helps to address different issues that been identified such as curriculum, organisation of the school day, provision of services and school environment. Schools also collaborate with services in the community to improve the quality of school. This approach is embedded in all practices and legislation since the Education Act 1998 (European Commission, 2013).
SCP and youth services such as Garda Youth Diversion Projects offer out-of-school supports and help students with emotional or behavioural issues by getting them involved in community based interventions. Youthreach centres are small out-of-school units that aim to provide Early School Leavers with the skills and confidence required to participate in society and progress on to lifelong learning. Youthreach was created in 1989 and targets young people aged 16 – 20 with poor qualifications and who are unemployed (NAYC, 2018).