What is early leaving, why is it a problem and a European priority?
Early leaving refers to when young people (aged 18 to 24) leave education and training with only lower secondary educational outcomes or less, and who are no longer in education and training. Also referred to in the UK as being Not in Employment Education or Training (NEET), the issue of early leaving is a major problem for young people affected, due to its impact for the individual on educational, social and labour market inclusion. High levels of early leaving are also bad for society in being associated with lower levels of social cohesion, higher crime levels and a weaker economy. Early leaving has been identified as priority target for action within Europe as underpinned by the European policy cooperation framework 2020, (or ET 2020 for short), benchmark objective. This benchmark stipulates that the share of early leavers from education and training in the EU should be not more than 10%. While 16 countries have met their national target the latest figures reveal that 11 member states, including the UK, have not.
Who are the groups affected by early leaving?
Demonstrating the far-reaching impact of early leaving, the groups in society most at risk of becoming Early Leavers are reflective of more general indicators of vulnerability. Across Europe those affected include:
- young parents and especially mothers;
- Traveller/Roma/Gypsy communities;
- some minority ethnic communities;
- children and adolescents who are refugees and asylum applicants,
- immigrant and migrant children and young people;
- young offenders;
- children and young people with some types of special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) including some young people who experience social, emotional and mental health difficulties (SEMH)
- children identified for child protection, as well as those in care
- young carers
- children from service families;
- Children and young people in poverty.
Many of these groups experience cross-cutting issues of financial hardship, low levels of social capital and more general social exclusion, all issues which will likely have amplified with the advent of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Experts in early leaving in the UK, SKOPE: The Centre on Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance, have already predicted that the effected of the pandemic will be ‘long-lived’ and those already vulnerable will be the ‘hardest hit’. It is therefore imperative that researchers, practitioners and policymakers, better understand the unique barriers young people face, in order to develop the most effective intervention measures.
How can we tackle early leaving?
Researchers in the department of Education are engaged in one such project dedicated to tackling early leaving. Brown, Costas Battle and Savvides are collaborating on a three-year EU Erasmus+ funded international research study called the Orienta4YEL project, that aims to understand and intervene on early leaving within 48 educational settings across key regions in five nations in Europe, including Spain, Romania, Portugal, Germany and UK.  Now half way through the project, findings on early leaving within the five collaborator nations have been produced. This first phase of the Orienta4YEL project (Work Package 2) was led by the University of Bath team, and involved developing the diagnostic, quantitative and qualitative research tools used by project partners to research the regional, national and international risk factors to, - and measures used to tackle, - early leaving within the 48 educational settings across the five involved nations. Given these findings, Orienta4YEL researchers were able to engage in an in-depth analysis of the regional, national and international barriers that young people across Europe face, in putting them at risk of early leaving.
Learning from the evidence: What are the different categories of risk to early leaving ?
One of the key outputs from the University of Bath, was the development of a framework in order to conceptualise the different categories of risk to early leaving and how they interact. This is illustrated in the following diagram:
A diagram showing the 5 categories of risk to early leaving (click to enlarge):
The diagram shows a series of five inter-connected risk categories:
- ‘Personal challenges’ which the child is born with, acquires, or experiences. This includes the young person’s health and abilities, view of themselves and their future, and any significant events, such as trauma or neglect.
- ‘Family circumstances’, such as; living in a low-income or workless household; familial cultural values, and the needs and availability of family members.
- ‘Social relationships’, which refer relational challenges brought about through all types of relationships outside of the family, including with teachers, employers, peers and friends.
- ‘Institutional features of the school and work-place’ such as aspects of the building or space, organisational policies, institutional norms, expectations and the resources available.
- ‘Structural factors’ such aseconomic challenges at the local or national level, national education and work policies, and challenges caused by the educational system.
Not only do the risks produced in any one category create their own unique challenges for young people, but there is also a compounding impact whereby risks produced in one category lead to, interact with, or amplify, issues raised within others. This highlights the limited effectiveness of efforts to reduce early leaving that target only one risk factor or risk category in isolation, without accounting for the knock-on impact of risks produced in other areas of young peoples’ lives. This framework developed by the researchers at Bath, reflects an effective starting point to help orientate and guide intervention actions. In order to engage stakeholders such as teachers, educators and practitioners working with young people at-risk of early leaving, the University of Bath has developed a short video, which discusses this framework and how the different categories of risk interconnect.
How can we support educators to Tackle early Leaving in their work with young people?
In the first half of this year, Ceri Brown has been working as a visiting scholar in the Department of Applied Pedagogy at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. This has afforded the Bath team with insights into the process of developing pedagogical innovations across the international database of evidence compiled in the first phase of the study. The core output from this second phase of the study is an early leaving toolkit: a handbook comprising of 13 different strategies each providing dedicated tools and practices focused on guidance and tutorial actions that aim to tackle the risks associated with early leaving across the five involved nations.
In order to ensure that the intervention mechanisms are tailored to the national context of the UK, the Bath team, alongside Alison Douthwaite (who recently achieved her PhD from Bath), have adapted this toolkit, paying close attention to the risks most prevalent within the profile of the South West region, and the unique policies and educational system in England. At the point of writing this blog, the Orienta4YEL project team are thrilled to have just launched the first University of Bath online Tackling early leaving (TEL) training programme, as part of the second phase of the Orienta4YEL project. The goal is to provide educational institutions and involved educators with a set of strategies to support their work in tackling young people’s risk of early leaving in each one of their specific contexts. This year long programme involves working with 18 participants who are teachers/tutors/educators working in various roles across the South West to support young people at risk of early leaving.
The Tackling Early Leaving programme aims to support participants’ understanding of early leaving before familiarising them with the intervention handbook and supporting participants in tailoring a unique plan of action to foster inclusive education of young people, at risk of early leaving, in formal and non-formal educational contexts. As part of the programme, each participant will be supported to carry out a tailored intervention plan to be tested with between 10-30 young people per setting across the 15 collaborator settings (mainstream and specialist schools, colleges, and non-formal education providers) in the South West region. The programme team are optimistic that the Orienta4YEL project will benefit an anticipated 1000+ young people involved in the project, as well lead to the development of a finalised toolkit for educators and policymakers in order to more effectively tackle early leaving across Europe.
European Commission. 2015. Education & training 2020. Schools policy. A whole school approach to tackling early school leaving. Brussels: European Union. Accessed March 12 2020. http://ec.europa.eu/assets/eac/education/experts-groups/2014-2015/school/early-leaving-policy_en.pdf
Eurostat. 2020. Early leavers from education and training. European Commission. Accessed March 12 2020. https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Early_leavers_from_education_and_training
Dr Ceri Brown is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Education. Let us know your thoughts on this study on Twitter - @EducationBATH.