What does the new data on early school drop-out in Catalonia tell us?


Published in late January 2022, the Labour Force Survey shows that early school drop-out has decreased by 2.5 points in a year in Catalonia and stands at 14.8%. Although this constitutes a structural decline in early school drop-out, and as such is not as a result of policies specifically designed for this objective, the improvement in the data is a cause for celebration and efficient measures should be promoted to prevent dropout among the most vulnerable students.

The figure for early school drop-out (ESD) that applied until now (according to 2020 data) stated that 17.4% of young people between 18 and 24 in Catalonia do not have any qualification higher than mandatory secondary level and are not studying. Spain, with an average of 16%, took a lamentable first position in Europe, and Catalonia was above the Spanish average and far above other autonomous communities with similar living standard indicators to ours.

With the publication of the new data we are witnessing a highly significant decrease that indicates that Catalonia has an ESD rate of 14.8%, with the whole of Spain standing at 13.3%.

However, this is an average figure that does not articulate the clear difference between girls who drop out of the education system (or the system abandoning them), among whom the figure is 9.9%, and boys – among whom the figure is a scandalous 19.4%. Other factors aside from gender also cause this rate to vary enormously, such as geographic origin, education level of the family and income.

We should not forget that, after years of decline, reaching an ESD figure of below 15% should be a cause for celebration.

The EU set a specially adapted target for Spain to reduce early school drop-out by 15% by 2020 (which we would therefore have achieved, albeit a year late) and 9% by 2030, which is eight years from now and from which we are currently still too far. However, we should not forget that, after years of decline, reaching an ESD figure of below 15% should be a cause for celebration.

Related: Read the publication School is not for you: the role of education institutions in early school drop-out

Every percentage point we reduce equates to individuals: girls and boys who decide to move forward and continue studying, opting as a minimum for intermediate vocational training or completing higher secondary education and graduating in post-compulsory secondary education. This is a small step (the theoretical difference is only two years of secondary education) but it signifies a whole world of opportunities in terms of admission to other study programmes, access to the labour market and personal and collective economic development.

As such, these are not insignificant facts, especially if we consider how the last two years have been for students in general, and especially for adolescents. In this context, to manage to continue with motivation, to keep attending classes, to keep studying, sitting and passing exams despite the pandemic, teacher absences, lockdowns and remote classes has been heroic. They deserve a standing ovation.

However, it is important that we do not become complacent following the satisfaction and euphoria at this decrease of more than two and a half percentage points.

Catalonia, above the Spanish average and the European target

Catalonia is still the fifth autonomous community with the highest ESD rate in Spain. Catalonia came seventh from bottom, meaning that we are in a worse position in relative terms because other regions have fared better than us. In addition, pending updated figures at a European level, it is highly likely that we will find ourselves at the bottom of Europe (or as frontrunners in a deplorable competition).

In this respect, we could speak of a structural decline in the drop-out rate and our region has followed this almost natural trend for young people to increasingly stay on in secondary education. It is likely that the labour market which used to be accessible with few qualifications has partially lost its appeal, due to increased specialisation in a large tranche of professional options, including service sector jobs.

Related: Read the article 100 days to establish drop-out as Catalonia’s main educational challenge

We do not know what will transpire when we leave behind the crisis caused by the pandemic and there is a resumption of less specialised sectors such as tourism or construction; nor do we know what direct effects the increase in poverty will have on drop-out. However, there appears to be a consensus among experts in ESD that the trend will be a levelling off and a fall in this rate.

Furthermore, valuable strategic measures have been taken, such as strengthening and diversification of vocational training, limitation on academic year repetition in compulsory secondary education or other emergency measures associated with mitigating the educational consequences of Covid-19, such as the NextGeneration for Education funds or the Catalan Ministry of Education’s Plan for the Improvement of Educational Opportunities.

Drop-out has reduced, but we cannot forget the 14.8%. They are real young people.

But we cannot forget the 14.8%. They are real young people. They are mostly boys, adolescents born overseas, young people from the Roma community, students from families with a low education level and a low income. Some have learning difficulties, others lack educational guidance, and many certainly coexist with demotivation, loneliness and uncertainty.

There is also the fact that they may have been educated in schools with highly insufficient resources and a chronic lack of specialist expertise to manage the complexity, with excessively high student-teacher ratios, late enrolment or other shortcomings.

Related: Read the proposal The equity formula

To meet the European ESD objective by 2030 we should therefore reduce the current rate from nearly 15% to 9% of students. As a minimum, this would lead to 5 out of every 100 adolescents continuing with their education who would otherwise have dropped out, thereby making the right decisions, graduating and being able to access further education or a skilled job market if they so wish.

This calls for precise, deliberate strategies: if we leave these adolescents as a structural defect in our system, we normalise them and conceal them. They will not reverse the trend on their own and, as the experts state, the lower the rate, the harder it is to reduce it.

Working to avoid this educational exclusion is a matter of social justice, and we are already aware of the successful solutions and strategies that are being implemented not far from home. One only needs to look to the Basque Country or Portugal. For instance, the Basque government offers a personalised, ongoing guidance service for students finishing post-compulsory secondary education and has strengthened and diversified vocational training options. Portugal launched an integrated plan in 2012 to combat school drop-out and failure. This enabled a lowering of ESD figures from 41% in 2002 to 13.6% in 2016, focussing on early and individualised support for students with a higher risk of dropping out.

Every young person who drops out of their education (or who is abandoned by their education) will be an adult at a higher risk of poverty in the future.

If we limit ourselves to accepting the new rate as a success, we are leaving behind boys, girls and families who need the education system to include them, make them feel at home and support them towards education and, therefore, towards full citizenship. Every young person who drops out of their education (or who is abandoned by their education) will be an adult at a higher risk of poverty in the future and will experience difficulties exercising their rights to the full extent required in a democratic society. Through the various bodies in charge, we must urgently implement efficient measures aimed at preventing drop-out among the most at-risk students, ensuring that they have educational pathways that are high quality, meaningful and with a future.

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Image: Paola de Grenet / Barcelona City Council

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