Despite a relatively high level of affluence in EU countries in the last few decades, some severe social anomalies persist. The gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ seems to widen. As the modern economy demands better-qualified workers, those who enter the labour market with little or no qualifications or skills get tangled in a vicious circle of deprivation.

Regular education attainment statistics published by Eurostat confirm that Malta still has the unenviable record of ranking in the lowest positions regarding early school-leaving despite significant progress achieved in the last decade. Even defining who qualifies as an early school-leaver is difficult. Some young people leave school early but then manage to make a success of their lives by working hard to learn a trade, even if they do so in a non-educational environment.

But for most early school-leavers, the prospects of a successful working life, which is the basis of happiness for most people, are remote. There is no shortage of academic research to prove this worrying reality. In the EU, 10 per cent of children live in families below the poverty threshold. An even more significant percentage live in families that are at imminent risk of poverty.

Researchers on early school-leaving acknowledge that at least five factors influence the dropout rate of students in schools: family and community, the school environment, peer pressure, the educational system and the employment market. The interaction between these elements is complex, but economic and social policymakers need to understand the dynamics of these factors to rescue those young people most at risk of failing to become successful members of society.

I believe that the family factor is possibly the most crucial factor that needs to be studied more deeply by our policymakers to develop a comprehensive strategy to address this long-term threat to our economic and social well-being. While every early school-leaver has a unique family history, certain elements keep cropping up when trying to understand the process of early school-leaving.

The family and household variables that seem to encourage early school-leaving include: single-parent family, parents with a low level of education, large family size, other dropouts in the family, household stress, family dynamics, limited social support for remaining in school, home-school culture conflict, assumption of adult roles (e.g. caring for younger children or sick parents), pregnancy and childrearing.

Various research studies conclude that ‘the biggest difference between early school leavers and other young people is the level of parental education’

No amount of desktop strategic planning by the educational authorities will mitigate the problem of early school-leaving unless an effort is made to understand the family environment in which those most prone to leave school early live.

Slapping fines on parents of truant pupils may be well-intentioned, but it hardly addresses the root cause of the damaging process of early school-leaving that some young people get engulfed in. The way that public institutions and agencies address social problems can be counterproductive and increase the risk of early school- leaving. 

Various research studies conclude that ‘the biggest difference between early school- leavers and other young people is the level of parental education’. Even when parents can be described as being ‘educated’, their understanding of what must be done to prepare their children educationally for the tough realities of the modern labour market is often unclear. This leads to hundreds of young people graduating from tertiary education but ending up in low-paid jobs because their qualification has little relevance to industry needs.

The most severe family characteristics that encourage early school-leaving include a lack of parental supervision or a permissive parenting style. Parents’ lack of involvement with their children when making educational decisions is another negative factor. Poor aspirations regarding children’s schooling are another cause of the lack of ambition to complete the compulsory school years successfully.

Not all children have the same ability to excel in academic or vocational education. However, one major enabler for less talented children is their parents’ determination to do what it takes to ensure their children finish their schooling with at least a formal qualification or skill set.

Early school-leaving is a process that starts in pre-school life. Policymakers must promote parental aspirations and expectations for their children’s education to prevent them from getting caught up in a vicious social and economic deprivation circle.

Many European governments continue to focus on reducing taxation at the cost of curtailing public investment in quality education and health, the two most critical enablers to dismantle the poverty trap that snarls so many families. We owe it to the next generations to reverse this trend.


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