Dropping out of school can substantially diminish the life prospects of youth. On average, early school leavers have much greater difficulty in finding and retaining employment and are more likely to be in low-paid jobs (Heckman and Rubinstein 2001; Rumberger and Lamb 2003). Improving student engagement in school has been a key driver of reforms since the mid-1990s. These reforms have included increased school autonomy, more years of compulsory education, expanded upper-secondary curriculum and early intervention programmes. However, since the mid-1990s, there has been little improvement in school completion rates in countries from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). On average, school completion rates in the OECD have risen from 74% in 1995 to 80% in 2008 (OECD 2010), with rates in the European Union and the USA increasing by only around 3 percentage points in the last decade (European Commission 2011 and Chapman, Laird, and KewalRamani 2011, respectively).
While retaining youth in school should be the first priority, the modest improvement in school completion rates since the mid-1990s underlines the importance of also having programmes to encourage early school leavers to return to study. The aim of this paper is to contribute to the literature on how to encourage early school leavers to re-engage in education. The key research questions addressed in this paper are: what is the effect of time out from school on the chances of re-engaging early school leavers in education? How can schools prepare youth who leave school early for further study after school? In particular, what is the likely effectiveness of measures aimed at retaining young people in school, such as improving numeracy and literacy levels, delaying school dropout and incorporating vocational courses in the upper-secondary curriculum? In settings where the main pathway back to education is through job-specific vocational education and training (VET), can schools encourage reengagement by providing post-school career planning?
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