When 2+2 are not 4: the accounts of educational dropout


The latest news offered by the Ministry of Education and Vocational Training of Spain in terms of dropout reads as follows: “The early educational dropout rate remains stable at 13.9% in 2022”.

How could we interpret this information? It could suggest that 86.1% of students in Spain have obtained a degree in Baccalaureate or Vocational Training. This is so to some extent, but not entirely. Let’s look at some key considerations to understand this indicator.

Educational, not school

We talk about educational abandonment. And “educational” is broader than “school”. In other words, it includes those who have dropped out of secondary school only if they do not follow any other training other than formal schooling (for example, training for employment, training in academies, etc.). In fact, educational dropout does not arise from a school record; it is calculated from the information collected in the Active Population Survey (EPA), carried out by the National Institute of Statistics (INE). Yes, the same one that gives us information about the strike.

And what then is early educational abandonment for the INE? Its definition establishes that it is “the percentage of people between the ages of 18 and 24 who have not completed second stage secondary education (the post-compulsory: baccalaureate or Vocational Training) and do not follow any type of study-training in the four weeks prior to the EPA interview” ( INE, 2018 ).

This concept of abandonment establishes three parameters: age, training and time, which confer some particularities in the count. Let’s see some examples:

  1. A person drops out of high school. He is 24 years old when he reports to the EPA. At that time he computes as abandonment. When I turn 25, not anymore.
  2. Two people with the same educational level and without having finished high school, for example 2nd ESO, and with the same age, 22 years, are preparing to take a machine operator examination. One of them goes to an academy and the other studies independently from home. The first of these people does not count as abandonment and the second of them does.
  3. A 20-year-old person who has not finished ESO, high school or professional training enrolls in an initial English course taught by a language center. Before taking the course, it will be categorized as an educational dropout, during the course it will not be and, once the course is finished, it will again be counted as a dropout. It depends on the moment it will be considered abandonment or not.

These examples suggest that the measure of dropout is a kind of snapshot subject to permanent change. People can be part of and leave this computation with some ease, without this implying resuming their secondary studies. It is possible that this idea comes to generate some doubt about how many are then who finally manage to graduate from post-compulsory secondary school. And this doubt is legitimate.

An isolated case

Few countries in the European Union use this type of survey to measure educational dropout (Germany, Spain, Portugal, Slovenia and Serbia), while the rest use school records ( European Commission, 2022 ) .

In addition, although the EPA is a national survey, it is frequently misused and abandonment is segmented by autonomous community. This is not correct, since the sample of informants selected by the EPA is different in each of them.

For the survey to be efficient from the economic point of view, the decision of how many people are going to be interviewed per community is justified by the expense involved in carrying out the EPA in some geographical areas. For example, twice as many surveys are carried out in Galicia (census of 152,000 people from 18 to 24 years of age) than in Madrid (census of 505,000 people from 18 to 24 years of age).

For this reason, the representativeness of the sample entails a bias that affects the interpretation of educational results, both in each community and throughout the country.

Not comparable in time

We can think that having always handled the information from the EPA, the results will be comparable. That is to say, we have been hearing for years that abandonment decreases (it was better for us, Spain was in 2008 with a percentage of 31.7%).

However, from the LOMCE, and now the LOMLOE maintains it, we have an educational option that is Basic Vocational Training (FPB). If we go back to the definition, abandonment is identified with the fact of not having completed second stage secondary education, that is, post-compulsory education.

Well then, whoever finishes FPB reaches the same educational level as whoever finishes Vocational Training or Baccalaureate . The FPB came to replace the Initial Professional Qualification Programs (PCPI); Before, if a student completed PCPI and did not continue his studies, it counted as a dropout. Now, graduating from FPB, even if he did not continue any further study, he does not become part of that number.

Approximately the number of students who graduate from FPB each year is 21,000 people and, even though the success rate is very low ( 27.6% ), it is enough to improve the dropout statistics. In other words, it seems that there is less educational dropout, but the number of people who do not finish the Baccalaureate or Secondary Vocational Training is the same.

European repercussions

The emphasis on results is also promoted by the European Union and its European 2020 Strategy . In this, abandonment is related to less employability and less productive capacity.

To guarantee economic recovery and improve competitiveness, it establishes that dropout should not exceed 10% on that date, 15% in the case of Spain, increased to 40% for graduates in higher education. Countries that do not meet these standards would be subject to economic sanctions that could go up to 0.5% of GDP.

A scale of educational health

But the educational dropout figures in our country do not exactly measure the results of the school system, or how many people do not finish official regulated education until high school or professional training; they measure how many people drop out of education in a broader sense.

We have seen that the indicator can drop due to factors that do not represent a real change in practice. Interest in the quality of our education system involves much more than a (good) count.

How to evaluate the quality of the system?

One way to do the computation correctly would be through school census records, as Calvo Bayón proposes in his doctoral thesis (2016) .

However, a quality educational system can only contemplate results and be subject to labor interests as a motor to build the sense of schooling? Wouldn’t it also imply listening to the experience of the students and being attentive to what happens in the classroom ?

Author Bios: Javier Morentin-Encina is with the Teaching and Research Staff and Belen Ballesteros Velazquez is a MIDE I Professor, Faculty of Education both at the UNED – National University of Distance Education