Early school leaving in Malta refers to students between the ages of 18 and 24 leaving compulsory schooling without having at least five SEC passes (at grade 1 to grade 7) or being in education or training.

At 20.9 per cent in 2013, Malta’s rate of early school leavers (ESL) is well above the European Union average of 11.9 per cent.

In the EU, early school leavers, about six million young people, are predominantly male, living in disadvantaged contexts and often transient. While boys are generally over-represented in ESL cohorts, when ESL intersects with low socio-economic status, the gap between genders is narrowed.

European Commission reports and international studies have shown that leaving education and training early is correlated with a higher risk of unemployment, precarious work, more part-time work, lower earnings, low participation in lifelong learning, a greater dependence on welfare programmes, a higher risk of poverty and social exclusion, low participation in democratic processes as well as in social and cultural activities, poor physical and mental health and a higher risk of anti-social behaviour, criminal activity and depression.

Malta, like the rest of the EU, has set a target of reducing the rate of early school leavers to 10 per cent by 2020. On the basis of current policy documents focusing on ESL, published in Europe and beyond, my assessment is that Malta is in order in its political commitment, has done well in developing a national strategy aimed at reducing the ESL cohort, is admirable in its effort to build an administrative infrastructure aimed at addressing the plight of ESL and credible in its attempts to improve guidance and counselling and reinforcing accessibility to second chance schemes for all young people.

However, Malta is weak in genuinely putting children and young people at the centre of all educational provisions aimed at preventing ESL and in investing in the ESL knowledge base through regular and independent collection of qualitative data that foreground students’ voices.

Provision is also weak in guaranteeing critical monitoring and evaluation of measures that steer policy development, in removing obstacles to authentic inclusion within the school system that may hinder young people in completing secondary as well as upper secondary education, in ensuring high-quality provision, particularly early childhood education and care and in promoting the understanding of and provision for ESL in initial education and in continuous professional development of school staff, especially in providing authentic differentiated teaching and learning across the different sectors that constitute the education system.

Malta’s economy continues to absorb unskilled workers, providing income for early school leavers

In his multi-faceted argument for a systems-oriented approach to early school leaving prevention, Paul Downes, director of the Educational Disadvantage Centre at St Patrick’s College, Ireland, adds other benchmarks to the list of established criteria for success in ESL prevention.

Referring to a wide-ranging repertoire of literature, including recent local research by Magri and Cefai and Cooper, Downes asserts that effective ESL prevention programmes should move from an individualistic to a system blockage focus; give central importance to the socio-emotional climate of our educational institutions; resist the adoption of fragmented, short-term and predominantly statistics-driven solutions to early school leaving; and adopt a strategic systemic approach to early school leaving prevention with structural indicators at its core.

In the context of these criteria, the latest analysis of our inclusive education provision, conducted by the European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education, provides us with further insights into our relatively poor performance in providing high-quality, all-round, pro-fessional assistance to a large cohort of vulnerable students who are often over-represented among early school leavers. The underlying message of the report is that, through its charity-based model, Malta still treats quality education as an option rather than as a human right, reinforcing my long-standing claim that the ESL problem is structural rather than personal and that, rather than dropping out, early school leavers are generally pushed out of the education system.

Beyond school climates, curricula, policies and pedagogies, the impact of labour market trends on early school leaving can be dramatic. Portugal provides us with interesting indications of what could be happening in Malta.

Portugal has high rates of ESL in the south, partially attributed to the influence of the tourist sector which employs young, unskilled, low-paid, mostly part-time workers.

Conversely, the north of Portugal has witnessed a spectacular drop in ESLs, mainly attributed to the contraction of the manufacturing sector, which had traditionally employed school-age children within family-run enterprises.

Similarly, Malta’s economy continues to absorb huge numbers of unskilled workers in retail, security, tourism, public and other sectors, providing income, albeit low and inconsistent, for early school leavers.

Early school leaving is a complex challenge that requires multiple understandings and coordinated actions within and beyond schools.

Multiple and equally-valued routes to success, supported by positive socio-emotional envi-ronments, targeted help that starts early in the person’s life and community-based actions can contribute to reducing the alarming rate of early school leavers in Malta.

Carmel Borg is associate professor in the Department of Education Studies, Faculty of Education.

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