Early school dropout: causes and possible ways to prevent it
© UNICEF Romania
Alexandru proudly dressed in his school uniform after school
by Raluca Zaharia – Education Officer, UNICEF Romania
The rarely debated issue of school dropout in the Romanian education system requires immediate action. It is a phenomenon so widespread and so serious that it should be a priority for all those involved in education: politicians, decision makers, parents, teachers and students.
The Educaţia 2000+ Center and UNICEF have developed the project Efficient solutions to prevent school dropout: costs and mechanisms. The project aims to offer support for strengthening the overall efforts to solve this significant issue. It follows three main directions: to extend the existing database on school dropout; to test a series of realistic solutions; and to estimate the costs of implementing at national scale the proposals submitted. Efforts also focused on better preparing those involved in education to deal with school dropout.
The research for the project was conducted in 19 schools in five geographical areas, in Argeş, Braşov, Călăraşi, Dolj and Neamţ counties. The main findings are detailed in the report Early school dropout: causes and possible ways of prevention.
The report explores the causes of early school dropout, focusing on the transition from lower secondary to high school in small towns and in suburban areas near larger cities. The general causes are grouped in relation to three different levels: pupils and their families, community and school.
Factors that may cause dropout in connection with pupils and their families include:
- Financial problems. Large, dysfunctional and poor families have problems providing adequate clothing for all their children and sometimes require child labour (in the fields or in the household often to help with younger siblings).
- Parents’ educational example. Most often students who drop out come from families where the parents themselves did not spend more than eight years in school. Yet, there are exceptions. Quite often pupils who have dropped out still hope to complete their studies “to have at least ten years of formal education”, to get some qualifications so they do not end up like their parents, who are unskilled workers and have little chance of ever becoming successful in their lives.
- Siblings’ educational example is much more influential. Families in which elder siblings have left school early often see the younger ones do the same.
- Dysfunctional families bring about material needs. Tribulations like divorce, alcoholism and domestic violence can often presage school dropout.
- Edge-of-law activities. Prostitution, membership of street gangs or of beggars’ networks almost always lead to children dropping out of school. These demotivating factors particularly apply when a child is moving from low secondary to senior high school or at the beginning of senior high school.
- Employment. Making money through unskilled work, bar work, prostitution or begging during term time almost always results in early school dropout. One solution, where work is necessary for financial reasons, would be to adopt models from Western countries, such as high-school pupils taking a holiday job or working just a few hours a day, for example baby-sitting.
- Lack of trust in the education system is a stereotype untested in real life. However, this trust is likely to fall in the run-up to school dropout. That is why it could be useful if pupils who have already dropped out were in touch with pupils at risk of doing so to share their current perspective on school.
- Migration does not seem to be a risk factor per se, but there are important issues in connection with the reintegration of migrants’ children who leave the system and then come home when they are older. The same problems arise when pupils join the education system much later than the norm.
At the community level, the major factors in early school dropout are as follows:
- The early marriage custom, which often terminates young people’s education, especially in rural communities.
- Having a child. This tends to be a characteristic of certain communities rather than a series of isolated incidents. Not only do girls who give birth typically come from dysfunctional, poor families, but many of their peers are doing the same thing.
- Lack of individual security in the area. In some communities teachers are afraid to interact with parents because of the high crime rate and this lack of cooperation between teachers and parents can increase dropout risks.
- The custom of discontinuing education after the eighth grade. In one community, which was relatively well connected to the urban area, eighth-grade graduates declined to continue their education in high school, saying that they did not have classmates to continue with.
In school, dropout may be caused by the frequent repeating of grades, insufficient pupil integration or poor relationships with teachers and classmates. However, at school level little action is taken to forestall school abandonment. Teachers can play an important role in this respect: because they see pupils all the time, they could identify and diagnose their problems and alert the relevant bodies (authorities or non-governmental organisations) when intervention is needed.
Even though the main factors behind school dropout lie within the family and community, recommendations to help reduce the risk focus mainly on schools. Except for the overarching goal to increase the responsibility of these institutions, there are no absolute priorities, and the recommended actions cannot replace one another, since they are complementary. The focus is on prevention, but there are also recommendations regarding the reintegration of pupils who have recently dropped out. The main areas proposed for action are as follows:
1.To increase the flexibility of “second chance” programmes – from the point of view of age groups. Although they address all dropouts, the second chance programmes are attended mostly by young people over 20. These programmes should have classes for children from the same age group (12-16 years old), who otherwise find it difficult to integrate in groups of second chance students 20 or older.
2.To increase the flexibility of “second chance” programmes – from the curriculum point of view. When students repeat a year for several times because they did not pass only one or two subject matters (usually the same ones), the passing grades for the other matters should be taken into account. Also, the professional abilities acquired by dropouts should be officially recognized.
3.To make school more appealing – promoting extracurricular activities taking place in the school, such as: periodic school painting/cleaning/decorating and sportive or artistic competitions.
4.To make school more appealing – by using school resources to encourage pupils to develop leisure activities outside.
5.To use the experiences of pupils who have already dropped out to prevent the spreading of early abandonment. It could be useful if dropouts could meet students at risk of abandonment to tell them about their life after they left school.
6.To get teachers proactively involved in fighting early school dropout. The teachers could be supported to develop means to increase the integration of students and the communication with them and with their parents, to engage the students in extra-curricular activities and to counsel them.
7.To develop a national sex education programme for pupils, focused on communities with a high risk of teenage pregnancy and where early marriage is still common.
8.To encourage the local authorities and specialized NGOs to involve eighth graders and high-school students from communities with a high risk of school dropout as volunteers in various support programmes (such as for the elderly or for families in need).
9.To keep a record of the situation of pupils from families involved in migration.
10.To put in place a system to monitor the development of school year groups.
11.To motivate teachers through awards and prizes.
As is evident from the examples given in the description of the 19 schools under analysis, the report is an important source of information on the Romanian education system and a useful tool in identifying and implementing viable solutions to prevent early school dropout.
Renunţarea timpurie la educaţie: posibile căi de prevenire – Early school dropout: causes and possible ways to prevent it (2009)
Report coordinated by Bogdan Voicu, as part of the project Soluţii eficiente pentru prevenirea abandonului şcolar: costuri şi mecanisme – Efficient solutions to prevent school dropout: costs and mechanisms, conducted by UNICEF and the Educaţia 2000+ Center (Project leaders: Anca Nedelcu and Sorin Coman).