Going the extra mile: how to tackle early school leaving

Image: Steven Lelham / Unsplash.com

Education is one of a country’s foremost competitive advantages, and for young people it is important to have a completed education in order to have access to a range of opportunities in the labour market. But is this really what motivates learning in schools? And what do you do to ensure that schools can successfully tackle early school leaving? Educational expert Per Kornhall makes some suggestions.

If you look at schools that succeed in tackling early school leaving, it is obvious that they are very different, but also that underneath this apparent difference there are important common denominators. For one thing, they never give up hope on a student. They constantly think: what can we try in order to succeed with her or him? They are prepared to go that extra mile. But why?

The first and most important answer is that these teachers and school leaders are not motivated by the reasons mentioned above, such as gross national product (GNP). What motivates them is the very encounter with a young person and the opportunity to change his or her life for the better. And that, in turn, is intimately linked to education’s democratic mission. The foundation of our democracies is a belief in the equal value of all people – but in order for this idea to be truly realised, it is necessary for all people to have the knowledge and the tools they need to be able to work in a democratic society and to attain the equality that underlies it. This has been a basic principle ever since the Enlightenment. It is evident from research on schools that succeed in preventing early school leaving that their leadership has just such a strong moral impetus.

The other characteristic of such schools is that they build strong and developing networks among teachers, between teachers, school leaders and various professional groups in the schools and with local communities and parents. The third characteristic is that they do not blame school failures on the students, parents or community, but instead constantly wonder what they themselves can do to better reach students and get them involved in their education. In one of the three film examples now available in the European Toolkit for Schools, the headmasters at the Malmaskolan in Sweden hired a person to pick up some children from home to bring them to school and give them breakfast there before the lessons started. They had decided to do whatever was required to fulfil the legislative intention that the school should help all children to succeed.

Another characteristic of such schools is that they monitor how the students are doing. They do this not to show figures to a responsible authority or district management but for their own benefit, so that they do not overlook a student’s needs and so that they can find the areas in which they themselves need to develop.

That being said, each school also needs enough resources, depending on the socioeconomic makeup of its catchment area. Each school also needs to build teams with many skills, ingenuity and – most importantly – a lot of courage. Schools that manage to prevent early school leaving are noticeably led by principals who dare to do the unusual, perhaps even breaking some unwritten (and not infrequently written) rules to succeed in their task of getting all students to attain their goals. They do this because their moral compass is crucial in their leadership. Our school systems therefore need to include opportunities for school leaders to act with autonomy.

The last important factor is that school leaders have to stay a long time in the schools that need improvement. There is a clear link between continuity of leadership and school outcomes. Why? Because it takes a long time to build the skills and the relational confidence that is required for people in an organisation to feel secure and motivated to work hard to improve themselves. In that type of safety (with challenges), you can develop yourself and take care of the development of others.


Per KornhallPer Kornhall (@kornknarr) PhD is an independent expert and author. He has been Director of Education at the National Agency for Education in Sweden and worked as a School Strategist in a Swedish municipality. He is chairman of SLFF, the copyright organisation for Swedish writers of educational books and materials. Since 2013, he has been a member of the European Commission’s network of independent experts in education. He has published several books on professional development and analyses of the Swedish school system.