The early school leavers perspective

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Quote from a mother of an early school leaver 'Something definitely needs to change, something has to, there's too many kids not wanting to go to school and they can't all be wrong' (Joint Committee on Education and Skills, 2010)

This chapter reviews the literature in relation to the early school leaver's perspective. It reviews research regarding theoretical explanations of early school leaving, also identifying the major characteristics and risk factors that are associated with early school leaving. Additionally, this study will attempt to go further in discussing the supports available to young people both within school and also the supports available to the early school leavers after leaving school and will be different to other studies in that it proposes to be a small in-depth case study of the young people's own perspective on the supports.

2.2 Definition of Early School Leaving

Although there is more than one definition of early school leaving in Ireland, for the purpose of this study I will be referring to the legal definition. The legal definition of early school leaving in the Republic of Ireland reads, 'early school leaving refers to non-participation in school before reaching the age of 16 years or before completing three years of post-primary education (junior cycle), whichever is later'. (Education Welfare Act, 2000). However Combat Poverty Agency states that the wording of this definition leaves certain groups experiencing further disadvantage than others such as young people who left school before completing the junior certificate. (Submission on Early School Leavers and Youth Unemployment to the National Economic and Social Forum, 2001)

2.3 Prevalence of early school leaving in Ireland

Firstly, it is important to note that education is important for all young people's personal, social, emotional and psychological development and well-being; however, it wasn't until 1998 that there was legislation introduced to govern education in Ireland when the Education Act 1998 was introduced. The general aim of this Act is to 'contribute towards the development of all aspects of the young person, including aesthetic, creative, critical, cultural, emotional, expressive, and intellectual, for personal and home life, for working life, for living in the community and for leisure'. (INCA, 2005).

According to the National Disability Authority, 2004 'participation in education is a crucial factor in determining the life course of every individual and has even been described as a crossroads between the personal development of an individual and the development of the person as a citizen to contribute to the common good of society'. However, according to the National Youth Council of Ireland, at present in Ireland, early school leaving is a major issue with over 1,000 young people failing to progress to second-level school and one in six young people leaving school before obtaining a Leaving Certificate. A study carried out by the Economic and Social Research Institute in 2010 stated that almost 9,000 young people leave school each year before the leaving cert and the Joint Committee on Education and Skills, 2010 found for every 14 girls who leave school early, 23 boys do so. This is very concerning information when one considers the definition of an early school leaver and the fact that there is a legal obligation on parents to keep their children in school until they are at least 16.

The Combat Poverty, 2003 & ERSI, 2010 would suggest that dropout rates tend to be higher for young people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and Kelleghan, T. et al. (1995) notes that educational disadvantage is widely recognised as a structural phenomenon in society, which involves children from low income backgrounds performing less well in school than their better off counter-parts.

2.3 Theoretical Explanations of Early School Leaving

It is important to give theoretical explanations in order to provide a detailed insight into early school leaving in Ireland.

2.4 Characteristics and Risk Factors of Early School Leavers

It should be noted that early school leavers should not be regarded as a homogenous group. According to a study carried out by the Joint Committee on Education and Skills, 2010 there is evidence that indicates to certain sub-groups being at a higher risk of early school leaving than the rest of the population, these include students with special educational needs, Travellers, and students experiencing mental health/emotional difficulties/trauma and also young people who may be place in the lower stream classes in schools. Other contributory causes according to Economic and Social Research Institute, 2010 study include the transition from primary to post-primary school, relations with teachers, relations with other students, bullying, alcohol, pregnancy, rejection by School: Lack of encouragement from school, expulsion; rejection of School: Dislike of school, rules, teachers and other students, feelings of underachievement; Labour market opportunity; Personal issues; Combination of issues.

In addition, a comparative study among 15-18 year olds between early school leavers and school attending students found that 41% of early school leavers had taken hard drugs in their lifetime compared to 11% of school attending children and 57% had used cannabis compared to 24% of the other school goers. (Haase, Trutz & Dr. Pratschke, Jonathan, 2010). The National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2003 states that young people who display aggressive behaviour in school can lead to rejection by peers, punishment by teachers, and academic failure and if not addressed through preventive interventions, these risks can lead to the most immediate behaviours that put a child at risk for drug abuse, such as skipping school and associating with peers who abuse drugs. The question that comes to mind here is: are these causes a result of young people leaving school early or is it lack of supports that result in these causes?

It is clear from the above evidence that there are a lot of issues for young people in school and many challenges they have to face, therefore it could be suggested that some of these issues and challenges are a result of the education system being unable to meet the needs of the young person rather than the common perception that the individual is the problem. This is backed up by Lally, 2009 who also suggested that one of the main perceptions which exist about early school leavers is that they were somehow academically incompetent of completing mainstream education, however she goes on to say that in reality the current system cannot cater for the extent of diverse needs of young people today, resulting in early school leaving been a widespread and pressing issue for many communities. According to Stokes, 2009 the success rate of Youthreach completion programmes in 2006 in further education and training was 34%, therefore suggesting rather than 'all' the fault of the young person/early school leaver, it may also be lack of or inadequate supports available within the school when they are needed as this is a substantive percentage to be continuing in education and training, showing academic competence.

2.5 Supports Available within School

Educational equity is a moral imperative for a society in which education is a crucial determinant of life chances. (Levin, 2009, p.5), therefore it is vital that the supports and interventions are in place for children who for whatever reason are at risk of early school leaving. The Joint Committee on Education, 2010 suggests that the post-primary education system currently in place in Ireland is actually doing injustice to the young people and does not represent equal opportunity.

2.5.1 Transition from Primary to Post-Primary Education:

According to the first major study on the experiences of first year students in post-primary education, this study found that the transition to post-primary is a crucial time in young people's lives. Smyth, E., McCoy, S & Darmody, M, 2004 identified support mechanisms to help with this transition including; Open days/ parent evenings/induction events, Provision of class tutors/student mentors, Early identification of special needs, Offering a range of taster subjects and also to Offer mixed ability groupings instead of streaming.

The Joint Committee on Education, 2010 noted that within their study transition posed problems and although not widespread it stated that it can have serious consequences on students in terms of educational outcomes and that some students could have been given more support and preparation at this point. Teachers estimated that there are 1 in 10 students that experience transition difficulties such as not knowing what to expect in post-primary schools. Byrne, D & Smyth, E (2010) found that 27% of the young people who didn't know what to expect when entering post-primary education subsequently dropped out of school. This is a very concerning figure for a problem that could be so easily addressed with some planning and thought on behalf of the schools. The Joint Committee on Education 2010 suggest the need for restructuring to promote smooth transitions at all levels, flexibility in the delivery of educational programmes with clear paths of progression and changeability between mainstream and other settings. They also suggested that work with the parents is crucial at this stage in order to give them the information they need to support their child in the transition. It is interesting to note here that six years later there are still the same problems regarding transition to post-primary school which is putting young people at risk of early school leaving.

2.5.2 Streaming

Boldt, S, 1998 states that international evidence shows that streaming may predisposed young people to early school leaving. Smyth et al, 2004 found, that in relation to streaming which is a distinction between academic, educational groups within the education system in the form of a pre-entry test, 90% of schools used the pre-entry test to allocate learning supports while 50% used it to allocate students to specific classes. This method of division, however, only proves to have more negative than positive consequences. Smyth 2004 said that the practice of streaming acted as a mechanism to reinforce and magnetise social class differences and it can cap the ceiling on the potential of the students learning ability. It was reported that 25% of students who were in lower-stream classes found that the pace of teaching was too slow and this resulted in their motivational levels to learn dropping and their engagement in classes dipping by second year. Smyth further suggested that mixed ability classes are needed as an alternative to streaming and that all schools and teachers should be fully supported in providing and managing mixed ability classes and also a need exists for a greater provision of additional supports to students particularly in the early phase of first year. So it can be said that along with transition problems in their first year of post-primary education, students are more likely to face further inequalities of opportunities if they find themselves placed in lower-stream classes in their first year. Dr. Emer Smyth, 2010 states that there is a strong link between streaming and early school leaving, she also stated that supports which need to be put in place to deal with this issue include; having mixed ability groups and differentiated teaching methods, building more effective student/teacher relations, more active learning approaches and a positive whole school climate.

2.5.3 Junior Certificate School Programme

As can be seen above, every year there are a number of students who for whatever reason leave school without any qualifications or attempting any State examinations, however in 1996 the Department of Education and Science introduced a new initiative to address this issue, this initiative was within the Junior Cert called the Junior Certificate School Programme. It was designed as an intervention which is aimed specifically at young people who are at risk of early school leaving.

The Junior Certificate School Programme: Building on Success, 2005 study the aim of JCSP is to enhance the social and personal development, build on the self-esteem and self-confidence of students who may be affected by the characteristics of early school leaving, previously mentioned such as bullying, substance & alcohol abuse and poor student-teacher relations and to encourage them to identify with and gain satisfaction from being in school. The Junior Certificate School Programme, 2010 (http://jcsp.slss.ie/) states that there are 240 schools now par-taking in the initiative and although this is very good news, there are 721 schools in Ireland, therefore a lot of schools who are yet to introduce this initiative. (www.education.ie)

The Joint Committee on Education, 2010 found in the year 2007/08 there were 7,600 students (4.5%) of the entire Junior Cycle included in the JCSP and that both retention rates and attendance have generally improved. Also a new initiative within this initiative called the JCSP Demonstration Library Project was introduced in 2001 by the minister for Education and Science and with the promotion of literacy and numeracy being a major component of the JCSP, the objective of the project is that a good library, will provide for the needs of a student with literacy problems, and will impact and improve their learning experience and allows them to address and overcome literacy difficulties. (The Junior Certificate School Programme: Building on Success, 2005)

An evaluation of the DLP showed that there are several positive outcomes since it began for example 70% of students showed increases in reading scores, also students were reported as having improved concentration and enthusiasm for academic tasks. (Cassidy & Kiely, 2001). However this initiative is only in operation in 30 schools nationwide, it could be suggested that the success of the JCSP and the library project should be built upon and more schools should introduce these into their school curriculums. These initiatives may also be said to benefit members of the travelling community of which a high percentage (44%) fail to progress past Junior Cert level each year compared to 4% of the settled population (The Joint Committee, 2010).

Effective planning and lesson preparation by teachers on the support programme sees improved relationships between students and teachers with their efforts being constantly affirmed and also teachers who carefully plan their lesson are more successful in engaging with the students and making the work more enjoyable. (The Junior Certificate School Programme: Building on Success, 2005)

5.2.4 Leaving Certificate Applied

Leaving Certificate Applied programme which was introduced in 1995 is a 2 year self-contained programme that aims to prepare students for adult and working life. It is intended to meet the needs of the students who are not adequately catered for by other leaving cert programmes or who don't want to opt for such programmes. (www.lca.slss.ie). According to the most recent ESRI Report: Engaging Young People? Student Experiences of the LCA Programme- that was published in April 2010 the provision of LCA by second-level schools had grown from 15% in 1997 to 42% in 2007. However when researching for evidence on the LCA's progress it was found that there is no published data on exact figures of people who dropped out of the LCA programme, however using a variety of data sources it was estimated by the latest ERSI report that the drop-out rate was in the region of 25% to 37%.

The report was carried out on school leavers who left school between the period of 2001-2005 and went on to examine their experiences up until the middle of 2008- a period of rapid economic growth, celtic tiger and almost full employment- this found that 75% of LCA completers were in the labour market compared to 66% of those who performed poorly or moderately in the Leaving cert. The same report stated that the position of school leavers from LCA today has dramatically changed and their position is likely to be problematic given that the young people who sit the Leaving Cert Applied were traditionally concentrated in construction and service industries. Additionally, as a result of the current economic climate their low levels of post-school educational participation, compared to that of their leaving cert peers, means they are further exposed to social disadvantage and poverty.

The major supports that have been put in place to decrease the volume of early school leavers have been discussed, however although much time, energy and resources have been piped into these supports the latest statistics from the Central Statistics Office would show that there is still a lack of significant improvement in the completion rates.

Although more supports and initiatives, such as Social, Personal Health Education (SPHE) and Relationship and Sexuality Education (RSE) have been introduced into post-primary education over the last decade or so these supports aim to address personal, emotional, social and sexuality issues, which can have contributing factors to early school leaving, however the supports which have been discussed in detail are the main supports that specifically address issues relating to early school leaving.

5.3 Supports Available to Early School Leavers Outside of School

As previously mentioned there are a very high percentage of young people who leave school early, therefore there is a need for supportive services to be available to them when this happens. It is the role of the education welfare officer to identify the children who are at risk of dropping out of school and to facilitate their successful transfer to the Youthreach sector. Combat Poverty, 1993 stated that unless there are specific programmes and supports aimed at breaking the cycle of educational disadvantage and poverty many young people are going to remain poor and marginalised in the future.

Many supports have been established to help young people who have left school early, for example, Youthreach was established in Ireland in 1989 as a result of the economic depression; high youth unemployment; heroin problems etc…and is now a well-established national programme situated in a continuum of measures responding to disadvantage in the education and training system. These programmes are now delivered in a range of settings; such as 45 Community Training Centres, 10 Justice Workshops and 33 Senior Travelling Training Centres. According to the Department of Education and Skills, Youthreach is designed to cater for early school leavers and its main objective is that it seeks to provide them with the knowledge, skills and confidence required to participate fully in society and also to progress to further education, training and employment. The Joint Committee on Education, 2010 states that there were 3,258 places for young people in Youthreach Centres nationally in 2003, therefore showing that this initiative is working as a solution for many early school leavers.

The Youthreach Programme has similarities to school in some respects in that, within this programme the young people have internal structures such as set timetable to keep to, also there are opportunities to sit the Junior Cert, Leaving Cert, Leaving Cert Applied and they can also, then like school progress onto a Post Leaving Cert Course or to a third level institution to carry on with their desired goal (Stokes, D, 2007).

However there are also some major differences between the two organisations for example within Youthreach, one its main objective is Social, Personal, Health Education (SPHE), it also starts off with 'where the young person is at' this means that it takes into account the personal experiences of the young person, therefore it providing a person centred approach. It works in close collaboration with Health Board personnel, Garda JLOs and probation officers as well as officials of various education and training agencies such as the National Education Welfare Board (Submission to the Youth Justice Agency). According to Stokes, 2003 Youthreach discusses issues such as drug abuse, alcohol abuse, risk taking, offending behaviour and teenage pregnancies, and can advise young people where to go for the supports they need.

It provides space where the young people can address issues in a positive way such as literacy and numeracy problems in which Stokes, 2003 found, in his study many young people who were in the lower-stream in school were pessimistic about living and overcoming this difficulty. There is a strong focus on literacy, numeracy, personal development/health promotion, sports, and vocational subjects.

Youthreach builds on their strengths and addressed their weaknesses; interactions with staff are warmer than with teachers and the young people are treated like adults, listened to and respected, it also provides a safer more intimate emphasis on students rather than on subjects. The Department of Education and Skills found that the young people themselves enjoyed the opportunity to re-engage in education, also the learning of new skills and gaining qualifications from par-taking in it. They also enjoyed their relationships with the trainers which were supportive, encouraging and understanding. The programme focuses on the holistic development of the young person in that there are both personal goals that build on the self-esteem, independence, personal autonomy and self-confidence of the young person and there are educational goals that build on the numeracy, literacy, assessments, certifications and knowledge based skills. (Stokes, D 2007)

According to statistics from the Central Statistics Office early school leavers represented 12.3% of the 18-24 age groups in 2006, however the Central Statistics Office does not include statistical information about young people who may have left school and are benefiting from other education facilities, O' Shea (2006) pointed out 53% of young early school leavers will continue their education in facilities such as Youthreach where they can receive necessary supports and continue a more participant-centred form of education. Stokes, 2009 stated the success rate of Youthreach completion programmes in 2006 was that 37% were in employment, 34% were in further education and training, while 14% were unemployed and the remaining 11% were other. It was stated in the ERSI, 2010 report that the specific needs and experiences of early school leavers must be considered if retention is to improve, however it could be argued that this is just what Youthreach is doing as can be seen they consider the needs and experiences of the young people on individual basis and also provide an understanding, supportive safe place where young people can address any issues they may have.

Out of school services can be defined as a wide range of activities from sport, music, drama, therapeutic or preventive interventions aimed at reducing drug use, teen pregnancy and criminal behavior (New Zealand Ministry for Women's Affairs, 2007). However although Youthreach is not in itself a youth justice measure it does play an important role in the justice system given that some of the young people who are availing of the programme may have been involved in criminal behaviour, this can be assumed by the fact that young people can come into contact with Youthreach through their Juvenile Liaison Officer (Joint Committee on Education, 2010).

The specific aim of the Justice Workshops is to re-integrate offenders into society through the provisions of training and employment opportunities, it is also a support to enhance the educational opportunities of the young people (aged 16+) who have been referred there by the Probation Services, and this is to enable progression to further education and employment (see www.countygalwayvec.com)

As can be seen above there are only 10 Justice Workshops in Ireland to help early school leavers who may be at risk of criminal behaviour however an article published on the 11th of September, 2010 in the Irish Times Newspaper stating, from a sample carried out among prisoners in Mountjoy prison, 80% had left school before the age of 16 and 50% had left before the age of 15. This evidence would suggest the importance of the Justice Workshops.

Conclusion

The author is of the view that previously in Ireland there was too much emphasis on the integration of young people into main-stream education, and trying to make the child fit into the system, rather than change the system to meet the child's needs. However it can be seen that in the last decade or so much emphasis on lowering the rates of early school leavers has moved in the direction off both prevention and intervention as discussed above i.e. mixed ability classes, introduction of SPHE, RSE, JCSP and LCA. It is felt that there is a need for equal importance on both integration and interventions.

As can be seen, the alternative supports to early school leavers are excellent and valuable in that the young people who avail of these support services are benefiting from them, enjoying participating in them while also receiving a qualification, employment opportunities or furthering their education. However it is felt that from the concerning statistics of 9,000 young people leaving school each year without a qualification and between the economic downturn, lack of employment and from the latest statistics that can be sought of- 3,258 places available within alternative services for early school leavers to avail of, this is leaving a worrying figure of 5,742 early school leavers which are not included in any education services.

This literature review has discuss the supports both within school for people at risk of early school leaving, and alternative supports to education outside school for early school leavers, however there is limited research carried out on the community training centres for early school leavers in Ireland and this study is going to attempt to look further at this, in a small in-depth case study.

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