Author(s):Xavier Rambla (presenting), Aina Tarabini (presenting), Marilyn Clark (presenting), Helena C Araújo (presenting), Marta Curran Fàbregas (presenting), António Magalhães

Conference:ECER 2014, The Past, the Present and the Future of Educational Research

Network:23. Policy Studies and Politics of Education

Format:Round Table

Session Information

23 SES 07 C, Early School Leaving in Malta, Portugal and Spain: Social Problems and Policy Challenges

Round Table


Room:B334 Sala de Aulas

Chair:Xavier Rambla


Early school leaving in Malta, Portugal and Spain: social problems problems and policy challenges

Since the reduction of early school leaving (ESL) is a key benchmark of the Education and Training 2020 Strategy (2010-20), EUROSTAT has produced an indicator that tracks actual trends in all the countries. For years this indicator has scored particularly high in Malta, Portugal and Spain. This Round Table gathers researchers from the three countries in order to discuss the policies implemented to tackle ESL in these countries.

The Round Table includes four papers that outline some issues for research that inform on the crucial policy challenges (60 minutes) as well as a space for debate (30 minutes). In this abstract we can tentatively state that their theoretical references revolve around realist policy evaluation, governmentality, youth studies, knowledge and education policy, studies on policy transfer, and the causal complexity of ESL.

Helena C Araújo, António Magalhães, Cristina Rocha and Eunice Macedo “Rereading Early school Leaving in Portugal after the Lisbon Agenda” (15 minutes). The focus in this paper is on policies and measures in Portugal produced by the state (and other education stakeholders), in the last twenty years, related to Early School Leaving (ESL). During the last 20 years, it may be said that there has been a growing investment in education and changes have reshaped the field of education The adhesion to European Educational Policies and to a discourse on European Union has been probably clearer until recently. The current period after the European crisis appears to be focused on early tracking to vocational education and a vivid concern and measures on equal opportunities has almost evaporated. The analysis will focus educational documents during the period 2000-2013 related to ESL. This research received funding from EC 7th Progr

Marilyn Clark (15 minutes): “A Discourse Analysis of the 2012 publication An early school leaving Strategy for Malta.” In response to the higher rates of early school leavers in Malta, the country responded by preparing a report that identifies and analyses the causes of the phenomenon and proposes a number of measures to respond to the issue. Drawing on Foucault’s ideas of discourse and power, especially in relation to educational processes, as well as social representations theory in relation to young people and problem youth more specifically, this paper will explore within what discourses on youth the strategy frames its attempts to extend possibility and opportunity for young people.

Xavier Rambla, Clara Fontdevila and Eloi Sendrós (15 minutes): “Tracking students in order to prevent ESL? Evaluating the design of the undergoing educational reform in Spain”. In 2013 the Gov. of Spain passed an education reform act envisaging to substitute the current comprehensive structure of lower secondary education by a new system of multiple, interlinked tracks defined in terms of students' ability. This paper will analyse how policy-makers borrowed the “policy framework” defined by the European Commission Thematic Working Group on Early School Leaving in order to argue that the reform will allegedly curb ESL.

Aina Tarabini, Marta Curran, Alejandro Montes, Lluís Parcerisa (15 minutes). “The politics of educational success in Catalonia”. The objective of the paper is to analyze the different meanings and implications of the concept “educational success” hidden in the discourses, practices and policies of the Educational Administration in Catalonia (Spain). The results of the analysis show two main perspectives from which to address educational success: one based on academic results and another based on educational engagement.


The Round Table will discuss the research methods which are helpful to study the EU policy framework against ESL. Mostly, it will explore the convergences, complementarities and common assumptions of these approaches. By looking at three extreme cases due to their high ESL rate, the methodological side of the debate will be particularly relevant to make sense of the current policy challenges.

First, the Portuguese team has a long experience in researching the interface between policy and institutional arrangements and students' diverse experiences. From this point of view they are working on the methodology of a large, comparative research taking a number of European countries into account.

Second, the Maltese team approaches policy from the theory of social representations and the methods inspired by Michel Foucault. Both of these tools are particularly relevant to make sense of the official plan whereby the government is addressing the issue.

Third, the Spanish team is researching the causal beliefs widely shared by central and regional policy-makers when designing and implementing programmes to curb ESL. In doing so they draw on the “realist” methods of policy analysis (cf. British sociologist Ray Pawson), which emphasise that real processes are external to official assumptions about them. This team is also using concepts of policy transfer (cf. Jenny Ozga, Lange & Alexiadou) in order to spell out the particular understanding of the European framework in the multi-layered system of educational authorities in Spain.

Finally, the collaboration of these three teams in the same Round Table may also remind us of some further methodological issues. Comparative reflection often unveils taken-for-granted assumptions which are difficult to see when looking at a single country. In this case, it can be particularly interesting to see to what extent official discourses and statistical indicators have responded to the making of a new EU approach that signals at an exacerbate problem in Malta, Portugal and Spain.

Expected Outcomes

A comparative review of research in the three countries reveals a common interest in spelling out the reception of European recommendations at the same time as revising the tradition of educational policy-making in the three countries.
Likely, a set of common questions about policy borrowing processes will provide a first outcome. Not only the EU policy framework is being read according to the prevailing framework in each country, but also national and sub-national authorities are also sending their own messages on the issue. Thus, discourses and social representations have to be studied in order to unveil the complexities of ESL.
The interaction of educational authorities and schools may become another focus of interest. Actually, the basic patterns of this interaction have already undergone significant transformations in Portugal, and a general reform is underway in Spain. Such a comprehensive intervention as the one envisaged by the EU policy framework, which is often translated into recommendations for each country, will probably impinge on teachers' responsibilities, and maybe the construction of their professional identity.

A final contribution of a comparative discussion may arise from studies on students' experiences. Endogenous social changes and the very emergence of ESL in the EU agenda have certainly impinged on the social construction of youth, both in terms of prevailing social norms and diverse individual perceptions. It is plausible to expect that the current attempt to align multi-layered (EU, national government, sub-national authorities) policy-making, school practices and teachers' professionalism, and finally students' trajectories, is provoking varied and complex causal linkages.


Fernández Enguita, M., Mena Martínez, L. & Riviére Gómez, J., (2010). Fracaso y abandono escolar en España, Fundación La Caixa. Colección Estudios Sociales, 29.
Lange, B., & Alexiadou, N. (2010) «Policy learning and governance of education policy in the EU». Journal of Education Policy 25 (4): 443–463.
Leask, I (2012) Beyond Subjection: Notes on the later Foucalt and education. Educational Philosophy and Theory, Vol 44.
Macedo, Eunice, & Araújo, Helena C. (2013) Young Portuguese construction of educational citizenship: Commitments and conflicts in semi-disadvantaged secondary schools. Journal of Youth Studies. Doi:10.1080/13676261.2013.825707
Ministry of Education and Employment (2012) An early School leaving Strategy for Malta. Salesian Press Malta.
NESSE Network of experts in social sciences of education ant training, (2009) Early school leaving. Lessons
from research for policy makers, pp.1–60. Report commissioned by the European Comission
Directorate General for Education and Culture.
Ozga, J.; Dahler-Larsen, P.; Segerholm; Ch. & Simola, H. (2011) Fabricating Quality in Education. Data and governance in Europe, London and New York: Routledge.
Pawson, R. (2006) Evidence-based policy. A Realist Perspective. London: Sage.

Author Information

Xavier Rambla (presenting)
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain
Aina Tarabini (presenting)
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona
Marilyn Clark (presenting)
University of Malta, Malta
Helena C Araújo (presenting)
University of Porto/Faculty of Psychology and Education/CIIE/CIIE
Marta Curran Fàbregas (presenting)
Autonomous University of Barcelona
António Magalhães
University of Porto
Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences