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febr. 27 2014

Can early school leaving be prevented?

The 2020 Strategy of the European Union expects to curb early school leaving and boost graduation in tertiary education. These two objectives are defined as the main contributions of education to a knowledge society.

Between 2011 and 2013 a series of meetings have been hold in the corresponding Thematic Working Group convened by the Commission. Apparently, governments have reported to the TWG how they are intervening on the problem and struggling to compensate for it. Common measures include early warning systems, mentoring, flexible grouping, systematic support and second-chance education. However, the recently published report of the TWG also reminds governments of prevention, a concept which makes reference to wider action such as good quaility early childhood education, a relevant and engaging curriculum, flexible educational pathways, integration of migrants and minorities, smooth transitions between educational levels, high quality VET, teacher training and strong guidance systems.

This policy framework assumes that early school leaving may be effectively prevented if preventative strategies are ambitious enough and coherent. However, some of these strategies are politically very sensitive. For instance, integrating migrants and minorities may lead to reforms in school choice schemes in order to counter-act socio-economic segregation. In this vein, some of these recommendations may even have a perverse effect if they are only partially put in place. Thus, flexible pathways and a renewed rhetorical emphasis in VET may convey a selective policy that fosters early and durable tracking in comprehensive school systems.

The final outcome is likely to depend on the official understanding of these policies in a given country. This crucial factor has a political and a cognitive side. The political angle depends on the agenda of priorities and the balance of power between interests, social movements, lobbies, parties and other political players. From the cognitive side, governments normally make sense of their challenges by means of causal beliefs articulated in small “theories” about which may be the probable consequences of their policy. Since these theories are not always coherent with research findings, their evaluation and the resulting feed-back are indispensable to take stock of past experiences and improve the design of new programmes. This gap may be the outcome of an ideological bias, or simply, of a difficulty to translate mixed evidence into a relavant enough language for decsion-makers. Both causes are eventually very difficult to overcome.

So, a careful and complex account of interaction between policy-makers and researchers will be extremely necessary to make sense of the final outcomes and the reflexive reviews of former policies.  But new and more effective approaches can only be outlined through the process of (sometimes controversial) decision-making, complex implementation and partial evaluation. New and more accurate approaches can only arise from these intricate circuits where politics meets expertise and expertise meets politics.

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