The impact of EarlySchool Leaving on EU citizens, European societies and the European economy

Early school leaving hampers economic and social development, on the level of the individual but also on the level of society, especially in a globalizing and knowledge-based EU economy (Psacharopoulos, 2007; Commission Staff, 2010). The few existing studies estimated the average societal costs of ESL over the course of a lifetime to about 1.1 million EUR per early school leaver (CEDEFOP, 2010; Canadian Council of Learning, 2009; Steiner and Wagner, 2007; NESSE, 2010). These costs range from loss in economic productivity and tax revenues over a decrease in public expenditure for social benefits such as unemployment benefits and social assistance, to costs associated with health and even crime (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2006; Groot and van den Brink, 2007; Dynarski, 2003; Freudenberg and Ruglis, 2007; Nasser, 2009; Smyth and McCoy, 2009).

Early school leaving can have an influence on the employment opportunities because of the (ongoing) shift in most EU countries from an industrial to a post-industrial society. This has been characterized by a growing importance of relatively knowledge-intensive jobs, and a decline in the amount of manufacturing and clerical jobs (Raemdonck, 2006; Solga, 2002; Tyler et al., 2000). This evolution has decreased the demand for unskilled employees, except in jobs that are especially low-quality and low-paid (Campolieti et al., 2010; Goos et al., 2009), causing those with low qualifications to be relegated to this secondary labour market (Rosenbaum et al., 1990). Such jobs also commonly offer little advancement opportunities to better jobs, causing individuals to become trapped in them for the rest of their careers (Campolieti et al., 2010).

Furthermore, the (perceived) value of educational qualifications on the labour market, according to the human capital theory, proposes that an individuals’ human capital, of which formal education is one of the most important sources, represents his or her productive capabilities. This means that an investment in human capital increases a person’s productivity, which in turn increases a person’s employability and the wages employers are willing to pay for him or her (Rosenbaum et al., 1990; Worthington & Juntunen, 1997). Signalling theories on the other hand, argue that because employers only have imperfect information about the abilities and personality of potential employees, they rely on directly observable signals as screening tools. Consequently, a lack of educational degree can be perceived as a signal for personal failure to succeed and as an indication that an individual lacks (learning) abilities and might not be able to master a specific job (Campolieti et al., 2010; Solga, 2002). For low-qualified women or ethnic minorities, this form of statistical discrimination based on qualification is further reinforced by the assumptions about an individual’s functioning based on gender and ethnicity, as well as accompanied by other forms of employment discrimination (Brekke & Mastekaasa, 2008; Brief et al., 2005).

The expansion of education levels in society leads to an increase in the relative proportion of higher-skilled individuals in the available labour pool. This can have negative consequences for early school leavers as, especially in times of economic recession, higher-skilled individuals are often willing to accept jobs for which they are overqualified, leading to an increased competition for low-skilled jobs. In line with previous theories, which predict that employers prefer individuals with higher educational attainments, this can lead to a crowding-out of the lower-skilled (Pollmann-Schult, 2005; Solga, 2002). Moreover, as their relative percentage in the population decreases, the stigma associated with the signal of low educational attainment can grow, further worsening employers’ attitudes towards early school leavers and reducing their employment opportunities (Solga, 2002).

Past experiences with barriers, discrimination or stereotypes can also influence labour market position of early school leavers through the attitudes and behaviour of the early school leaver (Hackett & Byars, 1996; Lent et al., 1999). While this element seems mainly important for ethnic minorities and women, early school leavers in general are also faced with specific forms of stereotypes and barriers. Besides the direct and structural effects of such barriers, they can also impact a person’s self-efficacy beliefs and aspirations, as individuals for example internalize negative stereotypes or attribute the negative outcomes caused by discrimination to personal failure, or as individuals start avoiding activities in which they anticipate barriers (Albert & Luzzo, 1999). Moreover, the social capital can also have an important impact on the labour market opportunities and behaviour of early school leavers. Not only does social capital and networking influence career success and opportunities through, for example, extra information about job opportunities (1995; Saks, 2005; Seibert et al., 2001; Van Alphen and Lancee, 2008; Behtoui 2004), it can also influence a person’s feeling of self-efficacy and outcome expectations. Important elements in this are the experiences of similar others and the encouragement and support of peers (Lent et al., 1994; Lent, 2005).

ESL also has negative consequences on the health and wellbeing of the individual EU citizen. Compared to people with higher levels of education, people with lower levels of education seem to live in poorer living conditions and tend to adopt more lifestyle behaviours that can have a potential negative impact on their health, such as dietary problems, problems in physical and sexual activity, smoking and substance abuse (Feinstein et al., 2006; Freudenberg and Ruglis, 2007). This results in lower life expectancies, a lower overall health status and higher risks for long standing diseases among low qualified (Cutler and Lleras-Muney, 2006; Groot and van den Brink, 2004 & 2007). Also, school failure seems to be a significant predictor of depression among female youngsters (McCarthy et al., 2008; Feinstein, 2002). Moreover, ESL and the following difficult labour market transition remain important factors reproducing social inequities and exclusions across generations (Van den Bosch et al., 2001; Commission Staff, 2010).

A wide range of research has focused on the negative consequences of multiple stressors on the mental health of pupils and on their decision to leave school early (Gonzales, et al., 2004 ; Sacker & Schoon, 2007 ). Mainly low SES and disadvantaged families are identified as facing various difficulties and discriminations leading to poor mental health. As a solution, strategies are put forward to strengthen individuals to overcome barriers and to build up self-confidence and resiliency (Stehlik, 2006 ) as both risk and/or protective factors can be found across social groups or institutions such as the family, the peer group or the school environment (Freudenberg & Ruglis, 2007 ). Prevention and intervention program are set up focusing on intra-individual and inter-individual processes, but also the context wherein these processes occur are studied and modified. The school environment, its policy and its curriculum can serve as important protective factors preventing or at least reducing early school leaving by stimulating positive interactions between pupils and teachers, by designing a culturally relevant pedagogy and by positively approaching the different forms of capital pupils and their families bring into the school context (Valenzuela , 1999; Yosso, 2005 ). Furthermore, evidence shows a negative correlation between low levels of education and the participation rate in various social, economic and political domains. The lower participation rates result in lower levels of social capital and less rewarding and stable employment opportunities (Preston, 2004; OECD, 2011). In 2007, even before the start of the current financial and economic crisis, the risk of low qualified people to enter poverty in Belgium was nearly six times higher than people with higher education levels (23% vs. 4%) (Van der Wilt, 2007). At the level of the European Union in 2008, the risk-of-poverty rate for those with less than upper secondary education was 23.5%, compared to 13% for those with upper secondary education and 6.6% for those with higher education (Commission Staff, 2010; NESSE, 2009). For specific ethnic minorities, the above stated consequences of ESL are of even more concern due to their higher risks to leave school early, the general lack of opportunities on the labour market and their overall higher poverty and social exclusion risks (Dierckx, et al., 2011; Shapiro, 2004).

The above stated impacts of early school leaving are acknowledged by the European Union and have received much policy attention since the Lisbon Strategy on Growth and Jobs (from 2000 onwards). This commitment was renewed in the EU 2020 targets on smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. Two Flagship Initiatives are particularly relevant to the impacts of ESL on EU citizens and European societies, namely the EU 2020 Flagship Initiatives ‘European Platform Against Poverty & Social Exclusion’ and ‘Youth on the Move’. The European Platform Against Poverty & Social Exclusion works on actions to reach the EU target of reducing poverty and social exclusion by at least 20 million by 2020. A part of the key actions consist of improving access to work and education, which is strongly associated with reducing ESL, as we pointed out earlier (European Commission, 2010a). Even more on the topic of ESL is the ‘Youth on the Move’ Flagship Initiative. The goal of this package of policy initiatives is to improve young people’s education and employability, to reduce high youth unemployment and to increase the youth-employment rate. Reducing ESL is therefore of the utmost relevance for the ‘Youth on the Move’ Flagship Initiative (European Commission, 2010b).