05 SES 10 A, Drop-Out and Early School Leaving
In the past decade, the issue of early school leaving has been a policy issue triggering a vast amount of (re)actions from educational stakeholders on all levels. On the supranational level, the EU made reducing early school leaving one of its headline 2020 targets and in doing so produced numerous documents to support the implementation of policy tackling ESL on the national and regional level (Cedefop, 2016). In this context, both educational scholars and policy makers have focused on developing a large number of prevention and intervention policies to realise this goal. While research shows that interventions aimed at improving the educational outcomes for students at-risk of ESL can wield positive results, empirical evidence also indicates that there is a sizeable variation in the effect sizes between, but also within, various types of interventions and whether the effects are positive in nature. Despite their good intentions, not all interventions realised the set objectives (Dietrichson et al 2017). This confirms what many educational stakeholders experience in their everyday practice: the same intervention might lead to very different outcomes, e.g. in different schools, and might become more or less effective (Berkowitz, et al., 2017). It is this conundrum the current paper aims to address by studying under which circumstances specific measures addressing early school leaving might become successful or not in mainstream urban schools.
We approach the domain of educational policy from a different perspective. Generally, policies are understood as actions or strategies that are implemented and have an impact (or not) on everyday actors (Pellerin, 2005). However, as many policies lead to unexpected outcomes, a rigid focus on implementation does not sufficiently grasp the complexities of everyday school life. Therefore, Ball et al. (2011) argue that actors within schools enact, rather than simply implement, various types of policies. A focus on enactment allows to broaden our view of how policies are negotiated discourses and practices (Konold & Cornell, 2015). Furthermore, it stresses the importance to study the points of view of the various stakeholders (policy makers, school management, school staff, students, parents and external organizations) involved in education and learning (Van Houtte, 2005). Given this variety of actors with their different roles and positions in the ‘power structure’ of the school, friction with respect to the goals, strategies and outcome experience of interventions is to be expected (Keppens and Spruyt, 2016). Thus, discussing interventions in schools implies studying the structural and contextual conditions as well as the role of the various actors interacting among each other and vis à vis these structures.
Studying the enactment of school policy, and for this paper more specifically the interventions to address (in the long run) early school leaving, implies studying the perspectives and experiences of the various stakeholders involved. Given that the interventions we studied were already in place at the time of our fieldwork we choose an adapted theory-based or theory-driven stakeholder evaluation or TDSE (Hansen & Vedung, 2010). This approach offers the possibility to give room to the voices of various stakeholders given their distinctive roles in these interventions and thus also to their opinions on and experiences with the interventions. One of the main goals of TDSE is to understand why certain interventions might work and to focus on their processual nature. At the same time discussing why something works implies discussing under which circumstances this occurs (Pawson & Tilley, 1997). By building their ‘theory’ on these interventions (i.e. their reflections on the problem definition, goals and outcomes) respondents offer insights on the contextual preconditions they believe to be crucial for the effectiveness of interventions (Chen & Chen, 2005).
Mixed method case study approach The data analysed in this paper are mainly qualitative in nature and based upon in-depth interviews and focus group discussions. However, the qualitative fieldwork was executed in a broader mixed-method framework wherein 41 schools in two urban areas were surveyed: the Belgian cities of Antwerp and Ghent. The Flemish education system – in Belgian education is a regional competence – is an early tracking system wherein often large performance differences and other inequalities related to students socio-demographic background variables are found. This mixed-method approach allowed us, on the one hand, to get a general overview of how students in generally ‘feel’ in their school and how they experience the interactions with others, in particular their teachers. On the other hand, the qualitative approach enables us to get a more detailed grasp on the survey findings by studying a few case schools more in-depth. Focusing on a school – and the policies enacted in this setting – as a case allows researchers to relate the various perspectives, experiences and strategies in within a few cases but also across these cases (Cresswell, 2011). For the selection of our four case schools, we were able to use the survey data collected among students in the first and last year of secondary education in the school year 2014-2015 among 41 schools. This dataset allowed us to make an informed selection of schools with a majority of students theoretically more at-risk of early school leaving. By applying the TDSE approach to these cases we aim to uncover which mechanisms could offer some explanation why certain schools seem more successful than others in creating the contextual preconditions increasing the effectiveness of interventions. In these four schools we collected data through interviews and/or focus group discussions with the management of the schools, and a selection of teachers and students. They all reflected on the issue of early school leaving, how these issues could be addressed and how they experienced current policies in their schools.
This analysis reveals that the four case schools - while comparable as they all have a majority of students theoretically at-risk of early school leaving - show quite differing policy enactments. While two schools argue that their hands are tied due to limited budgets and government funding, the two other schools (with a similar budget) argue that they were able to creatively use the funds at their disposal. Rather than the specificity of the 'social vulnerability' of their student population, crucial to make a difference seems to be the sense of agency present among management, and to a lesser extent the teaching staff. In the case schools with a strong sense of agency new strategies were applied such as selective teacher hiring, investing in middle management and developing new roles in the school (such as student counsellors or persons of trust for students). Nevertheless, when including the voices of students, their (mostly negative) experiences and perceptions of their schools does not seem to differ fundamentally between the four case schools.
Ball, S. J., Maguire, M., & Braun, A. (2012). How schools do policy: Policy enactments in secondary schools. London: Routledge. Cedefop (2016). Leaving education early: putting vocational education and training centre stage. Volume I: investigating causes and extent. Luxembourg: Publications Office. Cedefop research paper; No 57. Chen, H. T., & Chen, H. T. (2005). Practical program evaluation: Assessing and improving planning, implementation, and effectiveness. London: Sage. Creswell, J. W. (2011). Controversies in mixed methods research. The Sage handbook of qualitative research, 4, 269-284. Hansen, M. B., & Vedung, E. (2010). Theory-based stakeholder evaluation. American Journal of Evaluation, 31(3), 295-313. Keppens, G., & Spruyt, B. (2019). The school as a socialization context: understanding the influence of school bonding and an authoritative school climate on class skipping. Youth & Society, 51(8), 1145-1166. Konold, T. R., & Cornell, D. (2015). Measurement and structural relations of an authoritative school climate model: A multi-level latent variable investigation. Journal of School Psychology, 53(6), 447–461. Pawson, R. (2002). Evidence-based policy: The promise of ‘Realist Synthesis’. Evaluation, 8(3), 340–358. Pellerin, L. A. (2005). Student Disengagement and the Socialization Styles of High Schools. Social Forces, 84(2), 1159–1179. Van Houtte, M. (2005). Climate or culture? A plea for conceptual clarity in school effectiveness research. School effectiveness and school improvement, 16(1), 71-89. Van Houtte, M., & Demanet, J. (2016). Teachers' beliefs about students, and the intention of students to drop out of secondary education in Flanders. Teaching and Teacher Education, 54, 117-127. Van Praag, Lore, Van Caudenberg, Rut, Nouwen, Ward, Clycq, Noel & Christiane Timmerman (2017). How to support and engage students in alternative forms of education and training? A qualitative study of school staff members in Flanders, Journal of Education and Work, 30(6), 599-611.
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