Dropouts - disadvantaged by definition? A study of the perspective of very early school leavers

Dropouts - disadvantaged by definition? A study of the perspective of very early school leavers

Studies in Educational Evaluation PERGAh4ON Studies in Educational Evaluation 27 (2001) 341-354 www.elsevier.nl/stueduc DROPOUTS - DISADVANTAGED BY ...

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Studies in Educational Evaluation PERGAh4ON

Studies in Educational Evaluation 27 (2001) 341-354 www.elsevier.nl/stueduc

DROPOUTS - DISADVANTAGED BY DEFINITION? A STUDY OF THE PERSPECTIVE OF VERY EARLY SCHOOL LEAVERS

Hetty Dekkers* and Adrie Claassen**

*Department of Education, University of Nijmegen, The Netherlands ‘*Institute for Applied Social Sciences (ITS) Nijmegen, The Netherlands

Introduction In most western countries reducing the number of dropouts has become a concern of national policy. Early school leaving is mostly seen as a negative and undesirable option. The early school leaver is generally described as someone who completely failed in his or her education and left school because of all kinds of negative circumstances. However, early school leaving can also be seen from a positive viewpoint and perceived as a move on the part of students to improve a situation they consider negative. In fact, there is a striking lack of research into how early school leavers perceive their own situation. There are no universally agreed definitions of dropping out (Natriello, 1987). Dropout rates vary greatly depending on how you define them. The Netherlands, for instance, currently uses two definitions. Taking the more traditional definition, an early school leaver is a student who leaves the first stage of secondary education without a general education certificate. A more recent definition, however, links early school leaving with certain qualification levels. The Dutch government requires every individual to be educated to a basic qualification level. A basic qualification is equal to at least a vocational training course, i.e., completing two years of intermediate secondary vocational training, or obtaining an intermediate general secondary education or pre-university education certificate. Since this new definition was introduced, there have been two kinds of early school leavers: those who have a certificate for the first stage of general secondary school but not a basic vocational qualification, and those who don’t even have a general education

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certificate. The latter category we call very early school leavers and they are the subject of this article. This article is based on a study which is part of a large-scale longitudinal cohort study carried out within the context of evaluating the national educational priorities policy (EPP). The study followed the school careers of primary and secondary school pupils. Separate smaller studies were made of pupils who, according to school reports, can be considered very early school leavers. In a previous article we have presented quantitative data on the scale of early school leaving, broken down according to - among other factors ethnicity and gender in combination with data on the causes and background of early school leaving (Dekkers & Driessen, 1997). This article, which is a qualitative and explorative study based on interviews with 39 very early school leavers, follows their career development in the years after they left school. Each young person was interviewed three times in all, the last interview having been held in 1997 - an average five and a half years after dropping out of school. This gave us not only a fairly detailed impression of their present social position, but also of their motives and personal views on leaving school very early. It also enabled us to evaluate the goals formulated, and measures taken, by government and educational authorities to tackle the problem of early school leaving.

Early School Leaving in the Literature: The Policymaker’s Perspective According to literature, policymakers’ image of early school leavers is predominantly negative. Because they have failed to finish their education, early school leavers are often seen as facing undesirable unemployment and being unable to support themselves. In fact in western countries early school leaving is officially seen as one of the major problems within education. Against such a background, one could question whose problem is early school leaving, and why is it perceived as such? Questions like these are generally linked to what we mean by early school leaving. In the literature three conceptual approaches can be distinguished. In the first approach, early school leaving is linked to compulsory education (Natriello, 1987). This is the legislator’s or government’s perspective. Early school leaving is evident when compulsory school-aged pupils no longer attend school. Thus a pupil’s age is a key issue in identifying early school leavers, In the second approach, the perspective of educators or the educational field is paramount. Thus early school leavers are pupils who have left school without obtaining a diploma for their particular course of study. Age does not play a role but rather the diploma or certificate obtained. In this context the term internal output is sometimes used (van Batenburg, 1996; den Boer & Harms, 1992; Meijer, 1994) to refer to the percentage of pupils within a given year of intake who successfully complete a study. The third approach is from the perspective of the job market or employers. Here the main issue is whether early school leavers are sufficiently qualified for jobs and professions. While diplomas can play a role in determining qualifications, employers by no means regard them as absolutely necessary. In times of an overworked job market pupils are sometimes persuaded to leave school early.

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Each of the three conceptual approaches alone does not portray very early school leaving as particularly problematic for policymakers and society at large. Though pupils completing higher education courses without gaining a diploma may be a problem for the output figures of a particular course, the prevailing view is that these pupils are still sufficiently equipped for the job market. Likewise, pupils who finish courses of study for which there is no real social need are not considered early school leavers either, even though they are insufficiently qualified for jobs for which there actually is a social need. Apparently the perspective of neither the educational field nor the job market is decisive in this respect, since the perspective of policymakers on early school leaving is based on a combination of all three conceptual approaches. Thus very early school leaving is seen as a problem because it concerns compulsory school-aged pupils who leave school without a diploma so that they are without any qualification whatsoever for the job market. Early School Leaving in the Literature: The Pupil’s Perspective Hansen, Fisherkeller and Johnson (1995) established that researchers tend to explain unsuccessful dropouts in terms of societal backgrounds, and successful ones in terms of personal qualities. Since scientific literature on early school leaving chiefly focuses on the background and causes of this phenomenon rather than on the subsequent careers of dropouts a negative image of early school leaving prevails. For this reason the authors urge for more research into dropouts’ intentions as well as their subsequent working careers. In this article, the emphasis is on the subsequent working careers of dropouts but because the first interview of the study dealt with the background to early school leaving, we first summarise the extensive literature on this. Relevant literature reveals many factors can play a role in pupils turning their backs on school, including those at pupil, family, peergroup, school and macro-level, i.e. situation on the job market (Coley, 1995; Dekkers & Driessen, 1997; Gaustad, 199 1; Hofinan, 1993; Rumberger, 1987; de Vries, 1993a). Factors at pupil level include intelligence and learning attainment as well as selfconfidence, aspirations and motivation. On average, early school leavers score less well on these variables than those pupils that stay on at school (Bosker & Hofman, 1994; Hofman, 1993). Moreover they find it more tiring to attend school, so that they make little effort during lessons, only doing the least possible amount of homework, and they are more frequently absent from school (Bosker & Hofinan 1994; Hofman, 1993; de Vries 1993a). At family level, the parents of dropouts are often poorly educated and belong to ethnic minorities. In literature the influence of the family is regarded as an important link in explaining early school leaving (Hofman, 1993; Riemersma, & van den Oever, 1994; de Vries, 1993a). Early school leavers are often from large, or one-parent, families, and an unemployed father and material poverty are also frequent indicators of early school leaving. According to Gaustad (1991) parents of dropouts have a low education level, on average; they have lower expectations of their children and are less involved with the school than parents of children who stay on. Moreover, communication, attitudes to child rearing and discipline in the home is often at odds with the values and norms of the school (de Vries, 1993b). The peer group too exerts pressure. In order for pupils to bond with their school it is important that their peer group comprises pupils from the same school. However, early

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school leavers frequently go around with friends outside their own school (Bosker & Hofman, 1994; Hofinan, 1993). The influence of school on early school leavers has been relatively little researched and the few results are not unequivocal (de Vries, 1993a). School climate appears to exert more influence than school size. Early school leaving occurs less often in schools with a “warm” climate, where fewer sanctions are imposed for misbehaviour, where there is less conflict and where achievement is positively valued (Bosker & Hofman, 1994; Hofman, 1993; de Vries, 1993a). Various authors have attempted to draw together a number of the aforementioned factors into a more cohesive explanation (Finn, 1992; Jordan, Lara, & McPartland, 1994; de Vries, 1993a). A distinction is often made between so-called pdl and push fictors. Pull factors relate to factors outside school which have an attraction for pupils. The job market with its attendant possibility of making a lot of money can be very attractive to pupils. Alternative forms of schooling, such as short, practically-oriented training or courses set up in conjunction with industry, can also be more appealing than full-time schooling. Girls are sometimes more focused on starting a family than following lessons. Push factors, on the other hand, tend to be generated within education itself, or at least in the relationship between school and pupil. De Vries (1993a) distinguishes three categories of push factors as far as pupils are concerned: lack of ability, boredom or irritation and cultural/social isolation and/or discrimination. The common theme in this is that these pupils, for whatever reason, have an aversion towards school or attach very little importance to it for their future lives. As has already been mentioned, little research has been undertaken regarding the subsequent careers of early school leavers and what has been done shows divergent results. Some authors emphasise the negative aspects of early school leaving. According to Rumberger (1987) early school leavers have lifelong problems finding well-paid jobs. Coley (1995) observed that the societal status gap between dropouts and well-trained young people increases with age. But other authors tell a less negative, even more positive tale. Jordan et al. (1994) studied the future plans of dropouts and discovered many were planning to return to school later. Chuang (1997) established that for some this in fact did happen. Research Questions and Set-Up The research literature draws a generally rather negative picture of early school leaving. Early school leaving is seen as something that will result in problems both for pupils and society at large and should therefore be prevented as much as possible. However, it is striking that the literature pays little attention to the pupils’ perspective. The question of how pupils themselves view education in relation to their aspirations on the job market, remains unanswered. One question might be, for instance, whether - from the pupils’ viewpoint - the courses of study followed are sufficiently relevant to the job market (Batenburg & Harms, 1998). But pupils may also consider schooling as redundant for the job they have in mind. Lastly, pupils may have no aspirations to a job career and may want instead to focus completely, for instance, on starting a family. In the present study the key issue is whether the negative image of early school leaving in research literature is a justified one. This is therefore a policy question to which, via an exploratory study, we hope to provide a tentative answer. To do this we looked at the

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careers dropouts had after leaving school and how they looked back on their decision to leave. The study involved 39 ex-pupils who were interviewed in 1994, 1995 and 1997. The last interview took place, on average, five years and five months after dropping out of school. All respondents left school within the first four years of secondary school. This means that at that point they were without a diploma; moreover, they were nearly all of compulsory school age. Thus the study involved dropouts who had little prospect of continuing a traditional school career and at that moment had no wish for one. The dropouts interviewed were traced via the EPP school career study in which the school careers of 5,000 pupils who left primary school in 1989 were followed year by year. The schools provided information, for instance, on the type of secondary education followed, the school year and school report grades for the subjects Dutch and mathematics (de Wit, Suhre, & Mulder, 1993; Dekkers & Driessen, 1997). The schools also provided the date when a pupil left school. Since some school leavers transferred to other schools, not all these pupils could be considered very early school leavers. An intensive search attempted to trace the situations of 298 pupils who had been reported by their schools as having left school within the first four years of secondary education. Eventually, 101 young people were approached and of these 65 belonged in the very early school leavers or dropouts category. The remaining 36 had moved to another school and a quarter of these had already obtained a diploma (de Wit & Dekkers, 1994). Of the 65 dropouts, 48 were prepared to participate in an in-depth interview in 1994. All but two could be traced for a second interview in 1995. Two-and-a-half years later, in autumn 1997, they were approached for a third interview. Predictably, some of the school leavers could no longer be traced. Two respondents refused to cooperate further and a third had died. Thus 39 respondents were questioned for a third time since leaving school early, albeit via the telephone or by means of a written questionnaire in a few cases where it proved impossible to conduct face-to-face interviews. Of the 39 respondents interviewed three times, nine were from ethnic minorities. In view of the small sample and the qualitative nature of the study, generalisation was not the prime intention. During the first interview much attention was given to pupils’ reasons for leaving school early. Subsequently, the following questions were used as guidelines in all interviews: 1. 2. 3.

At the time of interview what is respondents’ situation regarding job, unemployment and schooling? How do they feel about their present situation? Are they satisfied with it or not? How does their answer compare with their previous answers? How is leaving school early and the period thereafter viewed from the present perspective? Did they later regret their decision or not? Is there a link between the interviewee’s present situation and the early school leaving experience?

In the following overview of the study, first the results of the interviews in 1994 and 1995 are considered and then the findings of the 1997 interview are examined in greater detail. Finally, a typology based on the three interviews is presented in which early school leavers are characterised by referring to their later situation. Even though this was a qualitative

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study, in this report we have quantified certain variables like work, unemployment, schooling, satisfaction with the situation and regret about leaving school, especially in the report related to 1997. This provides something like a total image of the situation early school leavers found themselves in five years later. It hardly needs mentioning that due to the small numbers involved the percentages provided need to be treated with extreme caution. Results of Earlier Interviews It was apparent from the 1994 interviews - which were held on average two years after dropping out - that push factors like behaviour and motivation problems and lack of ability were the most important reasons why many pupils turned their back on school. These were often accompanied by pull factors such as a desire to work and not to follow full-time education. About half the pupils played truant as a prelude to definitely leaving school. Most expressed their dissatisfaction with school by paying scant attention during lessons and not doing homework properly. The school leavers interviewed did not feel isolated at school and were not discriminated against, while at home they appeared to have few emotional problems. Most, however, did come from families on the lower rungs of the economic ladder and their intention to leave school met with little parental resistance. This does not detract from the fact that many pupils found the school leaving episode a difficult period in which they had to fall back largely on their own resources. Notwithstanding ups and downs in the early period, most school leavers, in 1994, were quite satisfied with their situation. Most had work or were following a course again, usually as part of a day-release scheme or short intermediate vocational training, or in special youth projects. Around 10% admitted to being in dire circumstances. These were chiefly pupils who already had problems before leaving school. One year later, in 1995, interviews showed that a few dropouts who previously had a job were now unemployed, having either been fired or left of their own accord, due to being unmotivated or problems with colleagues. Some had changed job several times. Compared to the previous year, the level of satisfaction with their own situation was about the same. Around three-quarters were satisfied, especially those working or following a course. A few unemployed respondents said they had definite job prospects or work experience, while a few others were still in poor circumstances. About half of all those interviewed in 1995 had no regrets about their decision to leave school early, although now around one third admitted that it wasn’t a sensible decision and they missed having a diploma. There were more plans than in 1994 to continue with further schooling, especially among those already working. Immigrant pupils were more sorry about leaving school early than their Dutch counterparts, and more frequently followed a course or training programme. Situation Five Years After Leaving School During the time of the third interview in autumn 1997, two-thirds of respondents had a job. In 11 cases (28%) these were full-time; 7 respondents (18%) were employed on a

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contract basis for a specific period of time; 5 (13%) were in a flexible work situation and in 3 cases (8%) they did a government funded job. On average they had worked 22 months in their current job, although there were exceptions above and below this average, ranging from one dropout who had only begun working a month ago to another who had been in the same job since leaving school almost six years ago. Ten respondents (26%) were unemployed during the third interview. Three of these were not looking for work and had chosen to focus on their families. The other seven were job hunting. But this should not necessarily imply that they all experienced their present situation as negative. The ten unemployed respondents had been without jobs for nearly two years on average, but that average was six months shorter when the voluntary unemployed were excluded. The three other respondents were still following a vocational training course at the time of the third interview. Two of them had already obtained a diploma at starter qualification level, while the third respondent was following a course again and had already completed the first year successfully. Only three respondents were unemployed at each time of the three interviews - two of them voluntarily. Eleven respondents had been mostly employed since leaving school without having had any further training. Virtually all those following courses in 1994 or 1995 had a job in 1997. On the other hand, a few respondents who had a job during the first two interviews were now unemployed. The percentage of unemployed for each of the three measurement points remained virtually constant (25%). A shift from training in the direction of work had taken place. The overwhelming majority (about 80%) were satisfied with their present situation at the third measurement point. This applied especially to those respondents following courses, the voluntary unemployed and most of those in jobs. In comparison, the enforced unemployed were more often dissatisfied, apart from those among them who had job prospects. Boredom was often the most important cause of dissatisfaction. Contentment was also linked to degree of ambition. Significant is the fact that the three working respondents who were dissatisfied with their present situation had ambitions to find better jobs, whereas the others had no greater ambition than to work outdoors or in a factory. Those with a permanent job and higher ambitions had plans to follow a course. On the other hand those with temporary, flexible or part-time jobs were thinking rather of obtaining a permanent job than taking a course. At the same time present satisfaction did not imply having no regrets about leaving school early. Although half the respondents in 1997 did not express regret, the number of those regretting the decision had risen markedly since 1994. Half the respondents’ attitudes to leaving school remained stable over time (14 no regrets, 5 regrets), but with the remaining half, with unstable attitudes, the shift was more often towards regrets than no regrets. It is noteworthy that all dropouts with stable feelings of regret had left school due to

push factors (accident, drug abuse, detention). They now realised that without a diploma it was difficult to find permanent work. Among those who had no regrets, pull factors played a far greater role in deciding to leave school. This group often found work more quickly and found practical experience far better training than school itself. Dropouts who had trouble learning were especially glad they had been relieved of the theoretical side of the school curriculum.

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There were more girls and ethnic minorities among those who regretted leaving school. In the final count, seven of the nine minority pupils expressed regrets in 1997. This is a clear majority, whereas the majority of Dutch young people had no regrets. After leaving school early, minorities more often chose to follow a course than Dutch young people, but this was mainly done for reasons of expedience, since they had more difficulty finding a job and thus returned to school. Ultimately this did not do them any harm. Of the eight respondents who gained a basic vocational qualification in 1997, four were ethnic minorities, while in the population of 39 respondents they were only represented by nine young people. During the 1997 interviews the Dutch and the minorities no longer differed from each other regarding the degree of work, being unemployed, or following a course. Nor was there any difference in level of satisfaction. A Typology of Early School Leavers In the Netherlands and internationally various typologies of early school leavers have now been drawn up (de Vries, 1993a). These are based for the most part on different causes and motives for early school leaving. However, a typology of early school leavers can be made in which not the causes and motives but the actual working and schooling careers after leaving school, along with perceptions of these, play a central role. Since information was gained during the interviews not only about the present situation, but also about the in-between periods, a matrix could be drawn up and completed for all 39 respondents detailing what they had done in the various years. This could also be split into months. The researchers then divided the respondents into groups based on the presence and stability of a job as well as schooling career since leaving secondary education early. Table 1:

Working and Schooling Career Since Leaving School Early (N = 39)

Schooling Career

Stable Unstable Absent

Stable

Working Career Unstable

5 3 IO

5 8

Absent 3

1 4

Since leaving school early almost half the respondents (18, left-handed column) had built up a quite stable working career. Ten of them achieved this without further training, three with a part-time or unfinished refresher course. On the other hand, five followed a further course of training. Along with the three respondents who were still following a course, they constitute a group which has a more or less stable schooling career (top row). The situation appears more problematic for the 18 respondents in the four cells on the lower right in the table. They have neither a steady schooling career nor a working career. We can provisionally characterize them as unschooled, (largely) unemployed dropouts. Four of them had not worked since leaving school and had not followed any further courses.

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Whether the situation of early school leavers can be considered a problem not only depends on their situation as such, but on the way in which they experience their situation and what went on before it. Thus we have related the division into working and schooling career to aspects of perception (level of satisfaction and whether or not there were regrets at leaving school early). On this basis, we drew up the following typology. Table 2:

Typology of Early School Leavers from the Perspective of the 1997 Situation

Successful unschooled manual worker School returner

Moneyearner Voluntaryunemployed Enforced unemployed

Schooling

Work

Perception

+

+ +/-

+ +

+/-

++

-

The Successful Unschooled Manual Worker Without having acquired any more training since leaving school, these young people have built up a steady job history. They come for the most part from modest Dutch working class backgrounds. In secondary school they generally created few problems and achieved average results. A lack of motivation was the chief reason for leaving school. Learning was tedious for these dropouts and theoretical subjects in particular were seen as pointless. They are happy with their working existence, on the one hand because they no longer have to attend school, and on the other because they can earn money. The latter is considered more important than getting on in society. Thus they never contemplated taking a course at some point. As long as they can work with their hands they are happy.

The School Returner This type comprises young people for whom leaving school did not result in a definite break with education. Some of them have even attained a stable schooling career. For others the schooling career appears to have been less stable but they now seem to have found their niche. In secondary school these respondents were often average students who were sometimes disruptive without having real behavioural problems. This group is overrepresented by minorities.

The Money Earner As with manual workers, wage earners did not follow any further training after leaving school but the difference is that this group did not attain a stable working pattern. They have no interest in a specific occupation, and earning money is of utmost importance to them. Since leaving school they have had several jobs, often via temping agencies. They are mainly of Dutch descent. At school they were often problem pupils with limited cognitive skills and as such became disruptive and unmanageable. Some respondents in this group were content with their present job, while others were dissatisfied. Most of them, however, have no real prospects. Even so, they generally

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aspire to securing a permanent job. The majority had no interest in following any further training. The Voluntary Unemployed In this study this type is limited to girls who wanted to start a family. They have been unemployed for a while and have no plans for the time being to find work. They are happy with their present situation. The Enforced Unemployed This group comprises unemployed who are difficult to place in the workforce. They are waiting for a work experience place or have worked in a government funded job and then found themselves unemployed. This type would really like to work, sometimes in combination with a training programme. Some regret leaving school as they do not have a diploma, while others believe they can find a job without one. Most are dissatisfied and are bored at home. Some have no clear idea of the kind of work they want to do, as long as their days are filled. Among a few enforced unemployed their lack of work is linked to their problematical circumstances - drug abuse, mental problems, debts and frequent contact with the law, which has sometimes led to arrest. Most already had behavioural problems at school and played truant a lot. The problem school leaver also often wants to work, but finds it difficult to get a job, let alone to keep one. In general they are not happy with their present situation. Discussion In our literature review we distinguished three conceptual perspectives on early school leaving: from the perspective of the legislator (government), of the educational field and from that of the job market. We also pointed out the perspective of the pupils themselves, to which the literature has barely given any attention. In this concluding discussion the study results are considered within the context of the various perspectives. The section will conclude with the government’s perspective, since this perspective can be seen as encompassing the three other perspectives. From the perspective of the educational field the results of the study are initially quite disappointing. Only the school returners retraced their footsteps and decided to be educated to the requisite level. In this study this was roughly one out of five respondents. At the same time a similar sized group continued with schooling after leaving school, but this did not lead to the level desired by the government From the job market’s perspective, one type of dropout - the successful unschooled manual worker- can be judged positively, but the voluntary and enforced unemployed must be judged negatively. In Table 2 we put a provisional ‘+/-I next to the “school returner”, but it can be assumed that those dropouts among them who are still without a job should, after finishing their training, not have too much trouble finding work, so a ‘+’ is appropriate here. For the last type, the money earner, we also filled in ‘+/-I, since while they are seeking a job, they have also been unemployed for certain periods of time. From this it can be deduced

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employers hesitated to offer them a permanent job. Here we should note that at the time of the last interview in 1997 it was easier for employers to find personnel than now (2001). From the perspective of the pupils themselves the picture seems largely positive. The successful, unschooled manual worker, the school returner and the voluntary unemployed are content with their situation. For the money earners the picture varies. Their perception of the situation correlates highly with having a job. During the 1997 interviews there were also young people in this category who did have a job at the time but were not particularly happy with it. The obtaining of a permanent job without having to undertake any further training was their most important objective. As the chances of permanent employment have greatly increased since then, it can be assumed that this group of dropouts is now in a better position than a few years ago. The question is whether this applies to the last type of dropout - the enforced unemployed. In 1997 they were undoubtedly negative about their prospects. While most wanted to work they were hard to place on the job market. This applies especially to a few enforced unemployed with personal problems and who were identified as problem school leavers. This group represented the only type that was unequivocally negative about the situation. However, within the entire group of early school leavers involved in this study this group constitutes a small minority. Finally we have the government’s perspective. This can be seen as an allencompassing one since the government presents itself as a neutral body with an interest in the well-being of society at large and attempting to bring existing perspectives into one huge common denominator, which then, under the banner of general public interest, takes on a life of its own. With the introduction of the basic starter qualification in the first half of the 1990s the official government stance towards dropouts who leave school without a basic qualification is that this group should be considered in the long term as insufficiently qualified for the job market. Based on this, only the group of dropouts from our study who regretted leaving school early and returned to education conform to the government’s norm. The remaining dropouts would be considered at risk since they did not even gain a secondary school diploma. An official government norm like the basic starter qualification does not exist in a vacuum. The creation of such a qualification, as a minimum training level for all, can be seen as a delayed reaction to the widespread prevailing perception in the 1980s that truancy and early school leaving as a result of the economic crisis were rapidly increasing. Although, in retrospect, we can observe that there was definitely no increase in early school leaving - in fact it decreased from 1980 onwards, especially within the lower types of secondary schooling - worries about the matter actually increased. Truancy and early school leaving along with youth unemployment were defined as a major social problem. It can be assumed that the government presumed that increasing the basic education level was in the interest of both pupils and future employers. The government did not have to expect any resistance on this score from either the educational field or employers. The educational field in fact benefits from pupils’ staying on longer, although this did not prevent some in the field from asking whether this level was not aiming too high for certain pupils. As regards employers’ interests, raising the educational norm can be interpreted within the context of screening theory. When there is a large supply of labour on the job market, it is sometimes difficult for employers to make the best choices. Thus diplomas act

that

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as important yardsticks, not so much in the sense of indicating what pupils have learnt, but showing their perseverance or social skills (Thurow, 1975). As a result, introducing a starter qualification has probably led to the paradox that employers benefit more from this than the pupils for whom it was intended. Pupils for whom the level was too high wound up in an adverse situation compared to their more talented peers or those with a gift for perseverance. Yet even if they could have attained the government’s desired training level, during a time of great youth unemployment they could hardly benefit. Increasing the general education level leads to diploma inflation, not to more jobs (de Vries, 1993b). The present study has also shown that practical reality is more obstinate than theory, since a considerable number of the dropouts in the study succeeded in finding a job at a time when jobs were not abundantly on offer. It has been observed before that in times of high unemployment the unschooled can find work, and there are explanations for this. The most obvious one is that alongside a formal job market, where diplomas and certificates are the selection criteria, there is an informal one. And it is especially the latter market on which early school leavers find jobs. Sometimes they also make use of networks. A few dropouts in the present study were able to work straight away in a family business, while others were given an opportunity in the company in which one of their parents was working. There are also employers who - perhaps because they have no formal qualifications themselves - do not attach much value to diplomas but make their decisions on the basis of whether the applicant has a good pair of hands. Then there is the fact that dropouts are usually younger and cheaper than their qualified rivals. Even if this difference disappears after a few years, they have still had a head start in terms of experience. Dropouts are not only given opportunities on the job market during times of youth unemployment, but when there is a shortage of labour their positions are considerably strengthened. Employers are only too happy to find someone, which means the so-called screening theory plays a less central role. However this leaves employers with the responsibility for schooling if and when necessary. This can be done via day-release courses or on-the-job training. For those dropouts who left school because they had an aversion to theoretical learning, the latter option can be very appealing. As has been already stated, this research was an explorative study and partly qualitative in nature. This means that generalisation and representation are not its primary intentions. We have shown that very early school leavers differ considerably among each other in their subsequent career and their perceptions of this. Thus the one-sided negative image so often presented in both literature and policy requires some modification. References Batenburg, Th. A. van (1996). Rendementsverbetering in het MB0 [Improvement of results in the secondary vocational schools]. In Th. van Batenburg, & P.R. den Boer. Startkwalificatie en vooriijdig schoolverlaten [Basic vocational qualiJication and early school leaving]. Amsterdam: Max Goote Kenniscentrum. Batenburg, Th. A. van, & Harms, G.J. (1998). Oud-leerlingen over de aansluiting van het MBOexamenpakket op de vervolgloopbaan [Former pupils about the tie-up between school exams and societal careers]. Groningen: GION.

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The Authors HETTY DEKKERS is Professor of educational sciences and Director of research of the department of Pedagogical and Educational Studies at the University of Nijmegen. Major research subjects are school careers of different (societal) groups, e.g., by ethnic& socialeconomic status and gender, as well as educational policy in relation to these issues. ADRIE CLAASSEN is an educational researcher at the Institute for Applied Social Sciences (ITS) of the University of Nijmegen. His research interests are, among other things, educational policy, minority language and culture teaching and dropping out.