Why do some adolescents discontinue education?

As the world gears up to reach Goal 4 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (for all children to complete primary and secondary education by 2030), we are confronted with the challenge of retaining young people in schools particularly as they move into middle and late adolescence. Recent reports highlight that 1 in 11 primary school aged children, 1 in 6 lower secondary school age adolescents, and 1 in 3 upper secondary school age adolescents are not in school (UIS, GEM Report 2016). Of those adolescents not in school, more than half live in southern Asia (100.8 million) and sub-Saharan Africa (93.3 million), and the current completion rate of upper secondary education in low-income countries is a meagre 14%.

In our chapter ‘Push Out, Pull Out, or Opting Out? Reasons cited by adolescents for discontinuing education in four low- and middle-income countries' in the recently published Handbook of Development Research and its Impact on Global Policies, Protap and I tease out key reasons cited by children in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam for leaving schools across adolescence, drawing upon data from Young Lives. This chapter was the topic of a panel discussion at this year’s Society for Research on Adolescence Meeting that took place last week, focusing on the importance of investing in adolescent development and ways of building their capacity, engagement, and participation.

By recognising that school leaving is not an event, but a culmination of an interplay of various factors related to home, school and individual choices, we adopt a life course perspective in analysing reasons stated by adolescents for discontinuing education during adolescence. We broadly categorised the reasons into push factors, pull factors, and opted-out factors:

  • Pull factors are related to factors outside school such as social and economic disadvantage that affect regular attendance in school. Such factors include paid work and other responsibilities that would adversely affect school attendance and continuity.
  • Push factors refer to school related factors which ultimately result in dropout.
  • Opted out factors include certain individual behaviours (such as truancy), personal characteristics, and attitude (disinterest toward schooling, motivation, etc.).


Pull Factors

The highest number of adolescents discontinuing education by 19 years of age was observed in Vietnam (54%), followed by India (51%), Peru (49 %), and Ethiopia (41%). These percentages of course mask specific patterns of why children drop out in early, middle, and late adolescence across the four countries, with reasons for leaving school complex. We know that adolescents’ agency and educational trajectories are often highly constrained; by poverty, gendered roles and expectations, and increasing household responsibilities based on location and family circumstance.

Whereas girls were 29% less likely to drop out than boys by age 19 in both Ethiopia and Vietnam, the relationship was reversed in India, where girls were 150% more likely to leave education compared to boys. Besides household dynamics and shocks, boys in particular were found to discontinue schooling mainly due to increased engagement in paid work, while girls spend long hours in domestic chores at the cost of attending school. Unsurprisingly, children from top wealth tercile households across all four study countries are less likely to discontinue education (by 40% in Ethiopia, 69% in India, 62% in Peru, and 63% in Vietnam). Maternal education and maternal aspirations also emerge as strongly associated with children continuing education in Vietnam, Ethiopia and India. For example, mothers who aspired for their children to enter university were 25% (Ethiopia), 73% (India), and 72% (Vietnam) less likely to drop out of school as compared to children whose mothers had lower educational aspirations.

Findings revealed that pull factors emerge as the greatest contributor toward children discontinuing education as they enter middle and late adolescence. Child marriage, paid work, looking for work as well as domestic chores accounted for 77.3% of the total pull factors reported in four countries.


Push Factors and Opted Out

The second most important category is related to the push factors, which account for 22.5% of the total reasons reported, followed by the opt-out factor, which accounted for 19.7% of the total reasons cited for leaving school. The most important push factor reported by adolescents was “fees too expensive,” which accounted for 38.6% of all push factors, followed by “banned from school because children failed to achieve necessary grade” (i.e. expulsion) (24.3%). Bullying and distance of school from home were the other reasons cited for discontinuing education.

Interestingly, ‘truancy’ emerged as the most cited reason for opting out of school and constituted 59.5% of opted-out reasons. ‘Disinterest in studies’ was another reason cited by children and this may well be related to pressures to earn as well as in-school factors.


How can we support those adolescents who want to continue in their education?

Undoubtedly, adolescent educational trajectories are moulded by the social and cultural context in which they occur, despite commonalities such as puberty and socio-cognitive development. However, our pro-poor sample reveals that both adolescent boys and girls faced myriad challenges and pressures; for instance, girls experienced restriction on their mobility post-puberty while  boys across all four study countries faced familial, societal, and peer pressures to earn money. Given that out-of-school factors or pull factors emerged as the greatest contributor toward children discontinuing education as they entered middle and late adolescence, it is important that the most disadvantaged families are reached by adequate social protection 'safety nets'.

Capacity building of teachers and school personnel to identify children “at risk” of dropping out in order to provide them with the necessary academic and psychosocial support is crucial to countering push-out factors. One of the key deterrents to continuation of education is the long distance related to travel to school and expense related particularly to secondary education that the poorest families can ill afford. This needs to be given the highest priority by policymakers, and ensuring provision of free, publicly funded, quality primary and secondary education must become a global reality in the coming years.

While opting out was the least cited reason for leaving school, it is important that we recognise that disengagement with schooling may be the result of ‘irrelevant’ curricula, lack of faith in schooling, poor role models, as well as expectations from significant others. We need to consider a multidimensional effort by state, communities, and families to address structural, household, and individual barriers that impede the smooth transition of adolescents through secondary schooling. On the one hand, accessible second-chance schemes must evolve to ensure that education systems provide adolescents with easy and flexible options to pursue their education. On the other hand, communities need to provide adolescents with support services, so providing those “at risk” with timely support and intervention while empowering families to support their children, particularly girls, to complete their education by challenging discriminatory gender norms and expectations as children enter middle and late adolescence. This would mark concrete steps toward meeting SDG4, realising the potential of adolescents, representing some 17.3% of the world’s population.


For related updates on the Society’s Adolescence meeting, follow #SRA18 and #YLAdolescence on Twitter @yloxford.