Documents considered by the Committee on 5 April 2011 - European Scrutiny Committee Contents

3   Early school leaving




COM(11) 18




COM(11) 19

+ ADD 1

+ ADDs 2-3

Commission Communication: Tackling early school leaving: A key contribution to the Europe 2020 Agenda

Draft Council Recommendation on policies to reduce early school leaving

Commission staff working paper: Reducing early school leaving

Commission staff working papers: Impact Assessment and Summary of Impact Assessment

Legal base(a)  —

(b)  Articles 165 and 166 TFEU; co-decision; QMV

Document originated(Both) 31 January 2011
Deposited in Parliament(Both) 3 February 2011
Basis of considerationEM of 21 March 2011
Previous Committee ReportNone
To be discussed in CouncilPossible agreement on (b) in May
Committee's assessmentPolitically important
Committee's decision(a)  Cleared

(b)  Not cleared; further information requested


3.1  In June 2010, the European Council agreed the Europe 2020 Strategy and identified five "headline targets" establishing EU-wide policy priorities to tackle "bottlenecks to growth" and to help Member States promote employment and smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. One of the headline targets concerns education. It calls on Member States to aim to reduce school drop-out rates to less than 10% and to increase the share of 30-34 year-olds having completed tertiary or equivalent education to at least 40% by 2020, but also recognises that the task of defining and implementing quantitative targets in the field of education remains a national competence.

3.2  The Europe 2020 Strategy is accompanied by seven "flagship initiatives", including one entitled "Youth on the Move", which proposes a range of actions at EU and national level to strengthen the performance of education systems across the EU, improve the quality of education and training, and equip young people with the skills needed to find jobs. It contemplates the adoption of a Council Recommendation to provide a framework for measures to reduce school drop-out rates.[4]

3.3  The EU has limited competence in the field of education and vocational training. Action at EU level is intended to "support, coordinate or supplement the actions of the Member States" and the EU has no power to harmonise national laws.[5] Article 165 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) provides for the European Union "to contribute to the development of quality education by encouraging cooperation between Member States and, if necessary, by supporting and supplementing their action, while fully respecting the responsibility of the Member States for the content of teaching and the organisation of education systems and their cultural and linguistic diversity." Article 166 TFEU makes similar provision in the field of vocational training. Both Articles contemplate action at EU level to develop the exchange of information and experience on issues common to the education and vocational training systems of the Member States.

Document (a) — the Commission Communication on tackling early school leaving

3.4  The Communication seeks to analyse the impact of early school leaving on individuals, society at large and the economy, to outline its causes, and to propose possible measures at EU level to reduce the rate of early school leaving. The Commission emphasises that a reduction in school drop-out rates is also likely to improve the prospects for achieving other Europe 2020 headline targets, notably raising the employment rate of men and women aged 20-64 to 75%, promoting social inclusion and lifting at least 20 million people out of the risk of poverty and exclusion.

3.5  The Commission says that, in 2009, more than six million young people (or 14.4% of all 18 to 24-year olds) left school without completing their secondary education or any further education or training. Early school leaving increases the risk of unemployment, poverty and social exclusion and reduces the pool of qualified labour available to drive economic growth. Although the average early school leaving rate across the EU has declined by 3.2% since 2000, there are significant disparities between Member States. Some already meet the 10% target set by the European Council; others still have a long way to go.[6] According to the Commission, the early school leaving rate in the UK in 2009 was 15.7%.

3.6  The Commission identifies a range of factors which contribute to early school leaving, particularly amongst those from poorer socio-economic backgrounds, and suggests that Member States should develop comprehensive strategies based on the principles of prevention, intervention and compensation. The Commission highlights the need for a sound evidence base to ensure that strategies are appropriately tailored to meet the needs of different groups of pupils, schools, localities or regions.

3.7  The Commission says that preventive measures might include higher rates of participation in good quality early years education; systematic language support for children from an ethnic minority background; "active desegregation" to improve the social, ethnic and cultural mix in schools;[7] and targeted support for disadvantaged schools. Intervention measures might include the development of early warning systems; student mentoring and tutoring; and educational allowances to encourage pupils to remain in education. Compensation measures might include specially tailored programmes or incentives to encourage young people to return to education or training.

3.8  The Communication recognises that Member States are responsible for setting national targets to reduce early school leaving as part of the National Reform Programmes which they develop to implement the Europe 2020 Strategy. It also identifies a range of measures at EU level to support national policies and targets, including:

  • a Council Recommendation establishing a common European framework for tackling early school leaving (document (b));
  • a Commission Communication on early childhood education and care;
  • a Commission Communication on a New European Agenda on Integration to support the educational attainment of children from a migrant background;
  • specific action to reduce the number of young people dropping out of vocational education and training;
  • developing a benchmark to measure the employability of young people (how well prepared they are to enter the labour market);
  • conferences and high level official or Ministerial discussions to encourage the exchange of best practice; and
  • using EU funds to support innovative approaches to reducing early school leaving.

Document (b) — the Council Recommendation on policies to reduce early school leaving

3.9  The proposed Recommendation is intended to establish a framework to help Member States develop comprehensive strategies to reduce early school leaving and to quicken progress towards attaining the headline target set by the European Council.

3.10  Recital (1) of the draft Recommendation states that "Member States have undertaken to establish national targets, taking account of their relative starting positions and national circumstances." Recital (2) refers to the Council Decision, adopted last October, establishing guidelines for the employment policies of the Member States.[8] The Decision requires Member States to take the guidelines into account in developing their employment policies, and to report on them in their National Reform Programmes. Guideline 9 concerns education and training. It says:

"With a view to reducing the number of young people not in employment, education or training, Member States shall take all necessary steps to prevent early school leaving.

"The EU headline target, on the basis of which Member States will set their national targets, taking into account their relative starting positions and national circumstances, will aim to reduce drop out rates to less than 10%, and increase the share of 30-34 year-olds having completed tertiary or equivalent education to at least 40%."

3.11  The main body of the draft Recommendation is divided into two parts. The first part is addressed to Member States and invites them to:

  • identify the main factors leading to early school leaving and monitor developments at national, regional and local level; and
  • adopt, by the end of 2012, comprehensive cross-cutting policies to tackle early school leaving, in line with national Europe 2020 targets and based on the principles of prevention, intervention and compensation.

3.12  The second part invites the Commission to:

  • monitor developments across all EU Member States, encourage the exchange of best practice, and support peer learning;
  • support policies to reduce early school leaving in all EU activity concerning children and young adults;
  • conduct comparative studies and research;
  • ensure that EU funds may be used to support Member States' strategies; and
  • produce regular reports on progress made towards achieving the European Council's headline target on reducing school drop-out rates.

3.13  The Recommendation is accompanied by a detailed Annex which provides a broad policy framework to help Member States develop national strategies which reflect their own circumstances.

The Government's view

3.14  The Minister of State for Schools (Mr Nick Gibb) notes that the draft Recommendation would establish a non-binding policy framework which seeks principally to support and facilitate the exchange of information between Member States. Whilst he considers that the proposal respects the boundaries placed on EU action by the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, notably as regards Member States' responsibility for the content of teaching and the organisation of their education systems, he believes that the Recommendation "should refer more strongly to Member States' competence in education" and says that the Government will press this point during negotiations.[9]

3.15  He continues:

"In general, the Government agrees that improving attainment rates and reducing early drop-out from education and training are key issues. Some of the Commission's analysis accords with our own — particularly the link between early school leaving, social disadvantage and poor labour market outcomes, and the proposition that tailored support at a local level is required. This fits closely with our priority of increasing the flexibility and freedom of schools to respond flexibly to students' needs.

"However, some elements of the proposed policy framework do not fit with the Government's policies in England, for example, some of the emphasis on 'modularisation of courses', 'strengthening personalised learning', and 'study allowances'. We will seek to amend these references in negotiations and ensure that the final version of the Recommendation to be agreed by Ministers at the May Council is as closely aligned as possible with our domestic policies as set out in the recently published Schools White Paper 2010."[10]

3.16  The Minister broadly endorses the principles of prevention, intervention and compensation which underpin the policy framework proposed by the Commission, but suggests that an alternative term should be found for ''compensation'', as "this could be taken to imply financial redress, which is not the focus of these measures. 'Re-engagement measures' could be an alternative."[11]

3.17  The Minister indicates that the UK already collects and publishes data on the proportion of young people who are not in education, employment or training, and on qualification levels. He adds:

"We also have clear policies and approaches in place to raise participation and attainment, including focusing on disadvantage, such as through the pupil premium, increasing the number of apprenticeships, and the Wolf Review of vocational education in England. We are also already committed to raise the participation age to 17 in 2013 and 18 in 2015."[12]

3.18  More generally, the Minister says that the Government is keen to learn from approaches taken in other Member States, especially where policy measures have proved to be successful. He adds that the Government will seek to ensure that the Commission's proposal to integrate measures to reduce early school leaving into other EU actions and programmes concerning children and young people does not cut across activity already being undertaken by the Government, local authorities or schools in the UK.

3.19  The Minister expects the Education, Youth, Culture and Sport Council to agree the draft Recommendation at its meeting on 20 May.


3.20  The draft Recommendation was foreshadowed in the Commission's Communication on the Youth on the Move flagship initiative which we considered last October. Our Report stated then that it was not clear what locus the EU had on such matters as school drop-out rates and that it was difficult to discern where the boundary between EU and national action lay.[13]

3.21  We note that the draft Recommendation proposed by the Commission would establish a non-binding policy framework which includes a range of policy options — many drawn from initiatives already being implemented by Member States — designed to encourage Member States to develop their own national strategies to reduce early school leaving rates. The Commission's role is essentially to monitor and support Member States in formulating and implementing their strategies. The Minister considers that the draft Recommendation respects the division of responsibility between Member States and the EU set out in Articles 165 and 166 TFEU. It is nevertheless clear that the Government has some concerns, since the Minister indicates that the Government would press for a stronger reference to Member States' competence in the field of education and training within the body of the Recommendation in order to reinforce the primary role of Member States. We should, therefore, be grateful if the Minister would provide a clearer indication of the language that the Government would wish to see included in the draft Recommendation, as well as a more detailed analysis of whether Articles 165 and 166 TFEU provide a sufficient legal base for EU action on school drop-out rates.

3.22  We would welcome further information from the Minister on the process of setting national targets to implement the "headline targets" agreed by the European Council last June. We note, for example, that the first two recitals to the draft Recommendation make reference to national targets to reduce early school leaving. We should be grateful if the Minister could tell us whether the UK's National Reform Programme will include a target to reduce school drop-out rates in the UK and, if so, what target the Government has set. Pending a reply from the Minister, the draft Recommendation remains under scrutiny.

3.23  The Communication on tackling early school leaving highlights additional measures which the Commission intends to propose, for example on early childhood education and on the integration of migrants. As the Communication reveals very little as to the likely content of these proposals, and they will in any event be subject to scrutiny once published by the Commission, we are content to release the Communication from scrutiny.

3.24  Finally, we ask the Education Committee for its Opinion on whether it considers that the measures proposed in the Communication and draft Recommendation respect the division of competences between the EU and Member States in the field of education, and whether they make a worthwhile contribution to support and/or supplement national policies to reduce school drop-out rates.

4   (31954) 13726/10 (31955) 13729/10: see HC 428-iv (2010-11), chapter 8 (20 October 2010). Back

5   See Article 2 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European (TFEU). Back

6   Eight EU Member States have a rate lower than 10% - Slovakia, Slovenia, Poland, Czech Republic, Luxembourg, Austria, Lithuania and Finland. The rate exceeds 30% in three Member States - Spain, Portugal and Malta.  Back

7   The Commission highlights the success of desegregation policies in Hungary and Bulgaria in improving the educational attainment of Roma pupils - see p. 6 of the Communication.  Back

8   Council Decision 2010/707/EU, OJ L 308, 24.11.2010, p.46-51. Back

9   See p. 4 of the Minister's Explanatory Memorandum.  Back

10   Ibid.  Back

11   Ibid.  Back

12   See pp. 4-5 of the Minister's Explanatory Memorandum.  Back

13   See the Conclusion to our Report, HC 428-iv (2010-11), chapter 8 (20 October 2010). Back

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