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Early School Leavers

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Essay on Early School Leavers
This essay will examine the issue of Early School Leaving. The legal definition of early school leaving in the Republic of Ireland is “non participation in school before a young person reaches the age of sixteen or before completing three years post primary education, or whichever is later”. Another useful definition is “leaving the education system without a minimum of five passes in the Leaving Certificate or equivalent qualification”. In Ireland up to nine thousand young people leave school early every year before taking the Leaving Certificate. The Leaving Certificate is the final state exam in the Irish secondary school education system. The essay will examine the factors that influence a young person’s decision to leave education early and the possible societal impacts that their decision will have for them in the future. Educational standards shape an individual’s role in society. Without a good standard of education, opportunities in society can be limited. Education can open many doors and without a good standard of education many doors will remain closed.
Aristotle wrote “Education is the creation of a sound mind in a sound body. It develops man’s faculty, especially his mind, so that he may be able to enjoy the contemplation of supreme truth, goodness and beauty of which perfect happiness essentially consists”.
Education is one of the most important aspects of society. It gives us knowledge of the world around us. It develops in us a perspective of looking at life, and helps us build opinions and have points of view on things in life. Education is essential in the development of values and virtues. It cultivates young people into mature individuals, individuals capable of planning for the future and taking the right decisions in life. A proper education system is vitally important for the economic growth of a nation. This is especially true today in recessionary times.
A highly educated person can often be perceived as superior to others. Aristotle wrote “educated men are as much superior to uneducated as the living are to the dead”. Unfortunately in Ireland, education has often been seen as a privilege rather than a right. This argument is one which could be argued today with the increases in the cost of third level education. Many people believe that for students from lower income families and those from disadvantaged areas, third level education is becoming inaccessible. Due to other factors, many students actually leave school much earlier than completing the leaving certificate. This has been a persistent problem within the Irish education system over many years, which has seen the Department of Education introduce many programmes to try and tackle the problem.
In Ireland, fourteen percent of students do not complete the Leaving Certificate (OECD 2008). There are numerous reasons why a student may leave school early. These reasons may fall into a number of categories such as personal, social, family, and economic or school based problems. Looking at the categories we can see the reasons for early school leaving.
Personal issues include, low self esteem, substance misuse or abuse, learning difficulties and lack of motivation. Social issues include lifestyle, poverty and young offenders. Family issues include, parental attitude towards education, family conflict or change, rising school participation costs or family poverty. Economic issues are the Celtic Tiger and its legacy. School issues include the low level of numeracy and literacy among young people leading to poor performance and low self esteem or behavioural problems, age differences, negative relationships with teachers, the absence of counselling services in schools or poor achievement leading to lack of motivation.
Early school leaving can be very disruptive to a young person’s development and have a detrimental effect on a student’s socio-economic standing in the future. The stage at which a student decides to leave school can be very important. The earlier they leave the more problems they may face in the future. Smyth and McCoy (2009) reported that early school leavers were three to four times more likely to be unemployed than those with higher qualifications, even before the current recession. The unemployment rate for people in Ireland aged eighteen to twenty four was just over twenty five percent in 2009, while the rate for early school leavers was double that. In most cases today employers and training courses require a minimum of Leaving Certificate completion. Early school leaving does not just damage a person’s academic skills it also hinders their social skills, such as working in groups and how to behave within pre-existing institutional boundaries. It also limits them from meeting and interacting with different ethnicities and personalities. Therefore the risk is that a person who leaves school early may lack the skill set necessary to participate to their full potential in their society. In Ireland, the dominant philosophy on education appears to be the progressive emancipatory perspective. This perspective puts the needs of the individual and the needs of society on an equal level. It recognises that there are different styles of learning. In this philosophy, education is seen as a positive force for change in society. In the Irish education system the student can still choose subjects, the college they go to and the career they wish to pursue, although these decisions are often influenced by social and economic factors at the time.
Early school leaving does not only present problems for the young people, but it also has economic and social consequences for society. Socio-economic background is closely linked to early school leaving, as a high proportion of early school leavers come from semi-skilled and unskilled manual backgrounds. The economic consequences of early school leaving are manifested at both individual and societal levels. For the individual, there is the increased likelihood of long term unemployment, low skilled and poorly paid employment and social and economic marginalisation. Research shows that both the levels of education and the grades achieved have a big influence on gaining employment. Generally, higher grades and qualifications increase the chances of getting employment, reduce the length of time seeking work, reduce the risk of unemployment and promote higher earnings levels. In financial terms, it has been calculated that the additional lifetime income for a student who stayed at school for an extra year was more than €70,000 (European Youth Forum, 2007.)
The difference in early school leavers based on gender shows that in 2008 fifteen percent of males aged eighteen to twenty four were identified as early school leavers, compared to only eight percent of females from the same age group. Although more boys than girls leave school early, it is girls who have a higher risk of unemployment, with nearly forty percent of males and fifty three percent of females with no qualifications being unemployed one year after leaving school. This is in comparison to only seven percent of males and twelve percent of females with a leaving certificate.
It is also a fact that early school leaving incurs substantial costs to the state in the form of social welfare payments and reduced tax revenue. The Teachers Union of Ireland (2009) estimated that those young people that do not complete the Leaving Certificate will end up costing the state €4 billion over a forty year working life, or €100 million per year. This cost per year is based on social welfare payments and a loss of taxation income.

Research has proven that education is a key determinant of a person’s health. People with more education are likely to have better health. People with lower levels of education are likely to die younger and experience poorer health. People with lower levels of education are at greater risk of adopting lifestyle behaviours that can have a potential negative impact on health, such as diet, physical activity, sexual activity and cannabis and drug taking. Early school leavers have lower levels of general health, report more anxiety and depression and have a higher mortality rate (Barnardos, 2009).

Early school leavers also have a significantly higher risk of getting involved in crime. Research by Barnardos (2009) shows that the majority of prisoners in Irish prisons have never sat a state exam with over half having left school by the age of 15. The National Advisory Committee of Drugs (NACD) report (2010) outlined the problems early school leavers experience with drug abuse. It found that hard drugs such as psychedelics, cocaine and heroin are used by forty one percent of early school leavers, compared to just eleven percent of those who stay on at school. Cannabis is used by fifty seven percent of early school leavers compared to twenty four percent of school goers, and cigarettes are used by eighty two percent of early school leavers compared to twenty four percent of school goers. It is evident from research that low levels of education do not only have severe consequences for the young people concerned, but also high economic and social costs for society as a whole. Preventative initiatives should provide early childhood education and care to give children a good start into education, improving the transition from primary to secondary education, turning schools into encouraging places for all pupils and providing pupils with individual support when needed. It is also important that young people who left school early are provided with opportunities to get a second chance in a learning environment which addresses their specific needs and helps them regain confidence in learning.

The following are just a sample of some of the initiatives which deal with those at risk of leaving school early and also dealing with those who were early school leavers;

School Completion Programme
A Department of Education and Skills programme which aims to increase retention rates among young people in primary and secondary schools. It provides a tailored programme of in-school, after school and holiday time interventions to target young people who are at risk of early school leaving.

Back to Education Initiative
This provides an opportunity for second chance education to early school leavers and adult learners who want to upgrade their skills.

Youthreach Programme
This is a joint programme between the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. It is aimed at unemployed early school leavers aged fifteen to twenty. It is intended to help these young people to return to learning and prepare for employment and adult life. It also gives them the opportunity to get certified qualifications.

The recent report on retention rates of pupils in second level schools (2012) by the Department of Education and Skills gives an indication that these initiatives are having the desired effect. It shows that the number of students completing their second level education is now at its highest rate ever of just over ninety percent. This represents an overall increase of almost nine percent in eleven years. Ireland also has one of the highest proportions of persons aged twenty to twenty four with at least a secondary education in the EU. Ireland’s rate of eighty seven percent is significantly above the EU average of eighty percent.

Early school leaving is a very complex and multifaceted issue. It is a problem that affects more than just the young people that leave education early. As it is an issue of equity in education and is a problem for society, the state, employers, the private sector, civil society and local communities. There is no doubt that the problem of early school leaving has in some way contributed to today’s economic crisis, especially when we see the figures for social welfare payments to early school leavers. It is clear that supporting young people to remain in education has serious cost saving implications for both individuals and society.


• Aristotle Quotes (Author of The Nicomachean Ethics). 2012. Aristotle Quotes (Author of The Nicomachean Ethics). [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 12 December 2012].

• Barnardos. (2009). Written out, Written off. Dublin: Barnardos.

• Byrne, D., Mc Coy, S., Watson, D. (2008). Early School Leavers Survey 2007. Dublin: ESRI/DES.

• European Youth Forum. (2007). Policy Paper on Education Leaving. Belgium: European Youth Forum.

• Early school leavers programmes. 2012. Early school leavers programmes. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 12 November 2012].

• Lally, M. (2012). Access all areas – a diversity toolkit for the youth work sector. Dublin: NYCI and Youthnet.

• Mc Coy, S., Kelly, E., Watson, D. (2007). School Leavers’ Survey Report 2006. Dublin: ESRI.

• NACD, (2010).Risk and Protection Factors for Substance Use among Young People. Dublin: NACD.

• O’ Mahoney, P. (1997). Mountjoy Prisoners: A Sociological and Criminological Profile. Dublin: The Stationary Office.

• Smyth, E. and McCoy, S. (2009). Investing in Education: Combating Educational Disadvantage. Dublin: ESRI Research Series.

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