Why Tackling Early School Leaving in Cities Matters

In his seminal book, The Rise of the Meritocracy, Michael Young set out his concerns for a society increasingly focused on qualifications and narrow academic talent. One of his worries was that people with other skills – for example the lorry driver who is an excellent amateur rose grower – would be less valued, as academic skills would become the gold standard. He also predicted that this would mean a drift towards credentialism, where qualifications become a proxy for overall human worth.

It would be hard to argue that Young’s rather dystopian vision has not come to pass. In today’s world, qualifications are everything. Yet, in these turbulent times, they can simultaneously be a guarantee of nothing. In countries like Spain and Greece, the best-educated and qualified generations in history have found that without employment opportunities, certificates are worthless. In both of these countries, the best and the brightest have had to leave in order to start their careers. For those still in the education system, perhaps a few will decide that labour market unpredictability no longer makes it worth staying in school. But despite this, all of the evidence suggests that in an increasingly competitive labour market, qualifications still give you the edge.

Conversely, there is ample evidence of what happens when you drop out of education early, or fail to achieve the basic grades. As most European city economies continue to hollow out, with diminishing levels of low-skilled employment, completing compulsory education becomes a minimum requirement for a decent economic – and social – future. An extensive body of research underlines the long-term challenges faced by those who fail to make a smooth transition from education to employment. The OECD has pointed to the scarring effects of being NEET, which extend way beyond adolescence, making long-term unemployment, poor health and even criminal behaviour, more likely. Conversely, one EU estimate puts the additional lifetime income for a student at €70,000 for an additional year at school.

It is for these reasons that the EU adopted a reduction in early school leaving rates as one of its headline targets for 2020. This metric relates to the proportion of 18-24 year olds with only lower secondary education or less. The EU 2020 target is to reduce the rate to 10% or less. In 2012 it stood at 12.7%, which equates to 5.5 million young people across the EU.

Cities are central to achieving this goal, for a number of reasons. First, 70% of EU citizens are urban dwellers and the continent’s largest cities have higher than average proportions of younger people. Secondly, these statistics reflect the higher proportions of migrants and people of ethnic minority background in our cities, and (where it exists) the evidence indicates that children from some minority backgrounds are prone to early school leaving. A European Commission report recently noted that in the EU as a whole, 30.1% of non-nationals are early school leavers compared to 13% of nationals. We also know that other factors make young people less likely to complete their statutory education: these include having parents with low qualification levels and suffering health problems.

In this article we will explore the phenomenon of early school leaving in Europe’s cities. Drawing upon the latest evidence, as well as on the work of a number of URBACT networks, we will examine what cities are doing to address the challenge.

Why don’t all young people complete their educations?

Why don’t children in all of our cities complete their statutory education? When we look beyond Europe, we see children struggling for the right to education. Inspirational young people like Malala Yousafzai remind us that not all children have access to the opportunities we often take for granted. So why don’t all children in Europe grasp the chance with both hands?

In an earlier life, I led a Scottish Government investigation into learning and skills for young offenders. As part of that work we held a series of workshops and focus groups with young people in prison. When we talked about their experience of school, there was a familiar pattern amongst these young men[1]. Most of them had enjoyed primary school. They had spent the entire day in the same room with a trusted teacher and with the same classmates. Their learning was quite practical, and they often worked in small groups, on a project basis. All of the academic disciplines were combined, and the results of their work were often tangible. Their memories of this period were happy ones.

The tone changed when they described their experience of moving to secondary school. In most cases this involved a shift from a small school where everyone knew one another, to huge a institution of 1000+ students, more like a social factory than a learning establishment. Many of these boys came from tough deprived neighbourhoods, where gangland territoriality created tribal behaviours. Suddenly, they were exposed to hostile groups from other localities. Many felt obliged to join gangs for their own safety. As they managed to struggle with this huge transition, these gangs fulfilled the function of their missing families, as many had disrupted backgrounds.

They also found themselves with a timetable requiring them to be with different groups, in different places, with new teachers throughout the week. Typically, these boys would hang on and survive this first transitional year. Just. By the following year, most had either been expelled due to truancy, behavioural problems or other reasons. Often, it transpired that they had undiagnosed learning support needs, which had gone undetected in these industrial scale premises. Out of school, unsupervised and with few positive role models, it was an easy step into juvenile crime. And a few years later they were in jail taking part in one of my workshops.

There were many familiar messages coming from this work. Quite often, the parents were struggling to keep their own heads above water, and had limited capacity to support their children. Many of the families had endured several generations of worklessness and lived in disconnected peripheral housing estates with few employment opportunities or transport links to city centres. When there had been work, it had not required qualifications, so there was little cultural appreciation of the value of education. And this was Scotland, cradle of the European enlightenment and the first society to have a free public education system available to all.

From this, we deduce that the problem can come from either side. Sometimes the failure to connect with the system is partly due to the students, and the challenges they bring through the school door. But other times it is an institutional issue. Consider the failure of these large impersonal establishments to diagnose the learning support needs of many of these students.

What do we expect from our schools?

As we get further into the twenty first century, the chorus of voices around the need for educational reform grows louder. The point has been so frequently expressed, that we almost expect employers to say that the education system no longer prepares young people for the modern world of work. Across Europe, we see education systems struggling to keep pace with the speed of change. Although there are highly praised models – most notably the German one – in most places, endless reform seems to be the order of the day.

Meanwhile, heavyweight contributors like Sir Ken Robinson, attack the educational model on a more fundamental level. For him, and many who agree with him, our education systems are a hangover from the era of mass production and the need to uniformly equip future workers to a certain level. In this post-Fordist century, this model is no longer fit for purpose. In his view, the function of the school is to help all young people unlock the special talent they have and to provide a platform to nurture and develop it. Personalization is the order of the day.

But this is hard to achieve, in public systems where the emphasis is often on the lowest common denominator. So, how are cities addressing this complex set of issues. More critically, how are they tackling them in ways that reduce school drop out rates and which encourage young people to reach their full potential? What does the experience of URBACT cities tell us? Here are five lessons emerging from our networks’ experiences.

1. We need to look beyond the school gates

It can be too easy to blame schools for ESL. However, there is ample evidence showing that the problem relates to wider cycles of deprivation, as we have already seen. Certainly, schools are part of the problem, and they also are a central part of the solution. The European Commission’s Thematic Working Group (TWG) on ESF underlined the need for a cross-cutting systemic approach to the problem, with schools occupying a pivotal role:

"Central role of schools: Cooperation should be centred on schools. Their

boundaries should be opened up to enable them to include other professionals

(as teams) such as social workers, youth workers, outreach care workers,

psychologists, nurses, speech and language therapists and occupational

guidance specialists in efforts to reduce ESL. Schools should be encouraged to

develop strategies to improve communication between parents and locally

based community services to help prevent ESL."

For local authorities, the importance of cross-departmental activity is clear. The message about the need to dismantle departmental silos is a recurring theme throughout recent URBACT work, particularly relating to education, training and employment. Otherwise, the risk is that municipal services duplicate activity, supporting the same young people and families with limited read-across. This results in a fragmented service offer, where professionals (teachers, social workers, health officials etc) are, in the words of URBACT Expert Paul Downes, “passing on bits of the child”, instead of working holistically.

Shifting from a fragmented model, where schools form part of an archipelago of disconnected activity, to a systemic one with schools at the nodal centre is a major shift. It requires strong leadership, commitment and a drive to achieve clear, shared results. This includes a willingness to embrace a collaborative working model, as well as a determination to hold schools to account.

Continuing the analogy of pulling down walls – both those between departments and those surrounding schools – this implies that the people working in schools should closely reflect the communities they serve. The importance of positive role models and mentors for young people is well-established, however the teaching body does not always mirror the profile of its feeder community.

This issue was discussed at a workshop organised by PREVENT, an URBACT project led by Nantes. Participants at this session, which took place in The Hague, universally agreed that it was important, with a number of factors contributing. These include the facts that:

  • The teaching profession is generally older than the average city age, and less representative in terms of ethnicity. Many have been teaching for a long time, but are still not close to retirement age
  • It can be difficult for some candidates – including from minority backgrounds and those with disabilities – to enter the teaching profession, for a variety of reasons, and further work is needed here
  • So long as ‘non-traditional’ candidates are under-represented, it remains hard to build a teaching body that reflects its local urban community

And this is not simply a debate about diversity. It is also one of reflecting the shift away from teachers having narrow curricular responsibilities to one where they have a stronger sense of their pastoral duty. This moves away from teachers seeing themselves as pure subject specialists with little regard for student welfare and progression, to each staff member understanding their own role in making content relevant and using techniques that actively engage all students.

We need proactive steps to widen the intake into the teaching profession and to modernise the teacher-training curriculum. However, one of the issues is that this is almost universally a national responsibility, which leads into our second key point.

2. It requires a multi-level governance approach

Tackling ESL requires more than collaborative activity between players in the city. It also needs a vertical approach that takes account of the multi-level governance structure that applies to education policy. We have already mentioned that schools in deprived neighbourhoods, with a lower socio-economic student intake, are likely to have bigger problems with educational underachievement. It is unrealistic to expect neighbourhoods to solve these challenges alone.

Equally, at the city level, it is unusual for decision-makers to have free rein to shape the factors influencing local ESL rates. Key levers relating to funding, curricular content, teacher training and students data are usually held at higher spatial levels – most normally as national responsibilities.

As part of its work with cities, the PREVENT project surveyed its partners on the question of where power lies, The table below shows the responses:

Table 3. Municipality Influence with Schools


On a scale of 1-3 what is the level of power your local municipality has over local schools? 1 means high influence/decision making power in most schools, 2 means some influence/decision making power in most schools, 3 means little influence/decision making power in most schools



The Hague
















It is notable that there is little middle ground in the table. With the exception of Sofia, cities either thought they had a lot or very little control. However, it is likely that the detailed picture, even amongst these cities is in fact more nuanced.

The question of student data provides a good example of this. Research into ESL (Including the EC’s Thematic Working Group report) frequently concludes that good quality student data is an essential weapon in the war against educational underachievement. Clearly understanding the patterns of educational performance is a prerequisite for decision-making around the allocation of resources and the targeting of preventative interventions. Yet this data is not always available either at the correct spatial level or in a format that is fit for purpose.

For example, from PREVENT, we know that the Munich municipality has separate data systems between its regional and national governments, so that school nonattendance figures are not integrated with early school leaving figures. This provides difficulty for targeting resources to areas and schools of highest level of need.

Another practical difficulty is that the practice of profiling students by ethnicity is not universal. In those Member States which do so, the data reveals essential intelligence relating to school performance, and explodes the myth that all minority groups perform badly in school. For example, the UK data shows that white working class boys are amongst the lowest performers whilst South Asian girls routinely fare well in the system. A significant development in London, one of Europe’s most diverse cities, has been the great improvement of educational outcomes, triggering a debate over the extent to which the city’s diversity is driving this.

Policy-making that is informed by the best available intelligence, demands the availability of such data. It also requires close working relationships between the various levels of government.

3. Actively involve young people and parents in solving the problem

A leitmotif of twenty first century public services is the rediscovered voice of the customer/service-user. Following decades where these services have largely been driven by professionals, the tide appears to be turning – albeit slowly in some places. A combination of factors – amongst them rising consumer expectations, 24/7 society driven by ICT, reductions in public funding, distrust of politicians and the establishment – is changing the nature of the relationship between public services and citizens.

Interestingly, if health is in the forefront of this movement, education still seems to be somewhere in the rear. Why this is so can be the subject of another debate. However, it is encouraging to see that there are some signs of change. And in relation to education, this primarily means with young people and with parents.

The My Generation at Work network, although primarily focused on transitions beyond school, contains cities which are making important steps around empowering young people within the system. For example, in Warsaw, young people from the URBACT project have been instrumental in shaping the city’s Education Development Programme 2013-2020, based on young people’s priorities. This has seen an increased emphasis on issues including career guidance, parity of esteem for vocational education and closer links with families and neighbourhoods.

The situation regarding parents is perhaps less clear-cut. There is a growing number of platforms designed to include parents in the life and decision-making processes of schools. These include parent councils, boards of governors, open evenings and the long-established parents evenings. But these are mechanisms which are comfortable for those parents with the confidence, language and social capital required to optimise them.

For the families and carers of children most at risk of ESL, these are not attractive or safe spaces to be in. Many of these adults will have negative memories of schools, or may not have enough of the host language to fully participate. And, as a Eurochild report pointed out, as a parent it is not always easy to ask for additional support.

“Nowadays in European countries, it seems that it is not well accepted for parents to ask for support. In addition, once parents do ask for help, parenting support tends to work from a deficit model; it tries to find a ‘cure’ to fix something bad. What is needed, is the normalization of parenting support. Parents should feel it is normal to ask for help and then receive the necessary support as soon as possible.” (Eurochild 2011, p.10).

The PREVENT project seeks to actively engage parents as a key resource in tackling ESL. To this end, they have designed a checklist for cities to use, so they know that they are on the right track.

The project has also identified a number of case studies which reflect effective ways to engage parents as active stakeholders. In cities like Stockholm and Antwerp, interventions have been developed to offer parents and children the chance to learn the host language in after-school clubs. The KAAP project in Antwerp is a three-way partnership between schools, parents and pupils. In the diverse Stockholm neighbourhood of Tensta, support targets parents and children aged 3-12. In Sofia, this engagement has included work with parents from the city’s most vulnerable communities.

4. Curricular design and flexibility

Going back to our young Scottish prisoners, they struggled with secondary school because they perceived much of the curriculum to be irrelevant and uninteresting. They could not see how learning French or Physics related to their lives – present or future. Consequently, they disengaged.

Having a diverse, relevant and engaging learning offer is an important part of keeping all young people involved in learning. Often, much of this is set at the national level and in places where it works best, students can see clear routes that take them through education and beyond. The German dual system is clearly an excellent model of this, although it can work less well for those who are unclear about their areas of interest. The URBACT Jobtown project has investigated the systems and has been exploring ways in which features can be transferred to other city partners.

One of Dual system’s foundations is the tangible link with the world of work, and it benefits from having strong employer input into the curricular content. This connection to the workplace – and the prospect of ‘real jobs’ – can be particularly attractive to those students who feel that they have outgrown a classroom environment. Having the opportunity to spend some time in a real workplace can also help this sense of learning with a purpose.

In many Member States, work experience placements can support this, even without the benefit of a Dual system in place. However, schools must ensure that those who can most benefit from such placements have access to them. Some research evidence indicates that students with the highest levels of social capital get the best placements, whilst those furthest from the world of work may not get them at all.

Meanwhile, across Europe we see a range of new school and college formats emerging, designed to provide a more relevant and interesting offer to students. In Finland, the Pro-Academy model has been designed to encourage entrepreneurial activity amongst students by providing a framework for group entrepreneurship. This highly successful model is now being considered for transfer to other cities.

5. Targeting of resources and support

At a time when many cities struggle with declining resources, the case for targeting resources seems clear. Scattergun interventions are unlikely to be the most effective or efficient way to tackle ESL. Rather, as we have already seen, there is a need for a systemic approach, informed by accurate real-time student tracking data.

Research promotes the importance of using such data to support the provision of early warning systems (EWS). This requires a combination of upstream data capture combined with effective pastoral support. For example, a key proxy of ESL risk is high truancy rates. Where these signs are identified, support services can address these early risks of disconnection and try to get the student back on track.

In cities like Glasgow, a member of the My Generation at Work network, the key has been to work beyond individual students and, as much as possible, to liaise with families and carers, alongside young people. This is very much a partnership model, with each player having specific responsibilities, and the young person working towards negotiated targets through a mechanism called Activity Agreements. These provide a modest financial incentive for meeting these targets, and staying in education, employment or training.

The final component of this package that we will mention here is guidance. Like most things, education policy is subject to fashion cycles, and careers guidance has been out of favour in many Member States for some time now. This is partly due to budget cuts, but also to the prevailing New Public Management (NPM) culture of the past decade which is dismissive of services which are hard to attribute with direct results.

However, there is a growing re-awareness of the importance of high-quality well-targeted guidance, particularly when the labour market is becoming increasingly complex. Another factor in play is the clear message emerging from much research about the link between effectively managing transitions and good educational results. As part of its final suite of products, Robert Arnkil, Lead Expert of My generation at Work, is focusing on the theme of guidance and this will be a feature of a future article on these pages.

Final remarks for cities

The established mantra for tackling ESL is Prevention, Intervention, Compensation. In this article, we have focused more on the first two aspects, and shown that at a city level, a great deal can be done to boost educational attainment levels and to support young people to keep learning.

Our five pointers set out practical steps that can be taken, based on the experience of our URBACT cities. Here we are in the business of long-term systemic change, which requires leadership, commitment and patience. But in the short term, having these city examples can provide inspiration for others, as well as assurance that they are on the right track. On this long road it’s important to remember that the prize is worth the effort.

[1] The study also included the experience of young female prisoners, but their trajectories were quite different


Submitted by Eddy Adams on 26/03/2015