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Home » Focus, Netherlands

Preventing Early School Leaving: the Secret of the Dutch Approach

Submitted by on 12 Jul 2012 – 12:32One Comment

Marja van BijsterveldtBy Marja Van Bijsterveldt, Minister for Education, Culture and Science in the Netherlands

The future of our youth, the health of the economy and the vibrancy of the labour market all start with good education. Investing in youth pays off, because young people with a basic qualification[1] have more chance of finding work. Youth unemployment is relatively low in the Netherlands thanks to decreasing numbers of early school leavers.

Early school leaving (ESL) can be prevented by providing quality education and by offering individuals and society hope for the future. The statistics say it all: without a basic qualification young people are the first to be laid off in times of crisis, they are twice as likely to be unemployed and are five times more likely to commit crime. When the Lisbon objectives were set in 2000, the EU Member States agreed to reduce the number of young people without a basic qualification to 10% by 2010. This is also one of the five main objectives of the Europe 2020 strategy for growth and jobs. The Netherlands has achieved good results in reducing ESL in recent years.

There were more than 70,000 new early school leavers[2] in the 2002/2003 school year. This was reason to implement a more stringent approach in 2005 to combat ESL. I strengthened this approach further during my two terms in office, and the statistics reveal that this was successful, which is something to be proud of.

During the past decade, ESL has nearly halved, to 38,600 in 2011. When the figures are translated into the European objectives, we see that the number of early school leavers has been reduced from 15.4% in 2000 to 9.1 % in 2011. The EU average fell from 17.6% to 13.5 %. This makes the Netherlands an EU frontrunner.

The consistent theme of the Dutch approach is the collaboration between the ‘golden triangle’ of the government, municipalities and schools. Together they are responsible for reducing ESL numbers. This collaboration is set down in long-term covenants per region, while the national government initiates, stimulates and co-ordinates. The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science evaluates policy and co-ordinates with other departments. The results of the agreements and best practices per school are published online, which motivates and stimulates all parties involved. A school performance bonus is offered on a no cure no pay basis. Schools receive a bonus of €2500 for every early school leaver less than in the reference year. In addition, the covenant partners can apply for grants for special regional programmes.

At the regional level, the approach begins with the day to day assurance of quality education and effective organisation. Inspiring teachers, challenging lessons, reliable schedules, a smooth transition to the labour market, pupils’ self-confidence: these all play a role in motivating pupils to stay at school. Moreover, we approach ESL not only as an educational issue, but as a social issue too. Pupils are frequently faced with various social problems that affect their performance at school, such as debt, addiction or neglect. To combat these issues, schools offer their pupils care tailored to individual needs. More investment in career guidance helps pupils to choose follow-up programmes that offer them realistic perspectives and match their talents.

Another success factor of the Dutch approach is the reliable Student Number registration system. This makes it possible to track exactly who leaves school and when, so that immediate and targeted action can be taken if necessary. The database also provides a wealth of information on ESL. A digital absentee monitoring system is coupled to the register, in which schools are required to carefully register all non-attendance (a first sign of an early school leaver). Schools need to know exactly who their students are, which students are not at school and where they are so that they can literally lead them back to class by the hand.

Reducing ESL is not a project with a beginning and an end. It is an ongoing story. After all, 38,600 early school leavers still amounts to an average of 100 young people per day who stop school without a basic qualification. That is why it is time to take the next step.

In 2011, the Netherlands set a new and ambitious objective: maximum 25,000 new early school leavers in 2016. To achieve this objective, the current approach will be sustained and strengthened where necessary. The five key measures are:

1.    Adequate and complete non-attendance and ESL registration.

2.    Long-term performance covenants between the government, municipalities and schools. Schools are held to strict percentage targets and receive a performance bonus if they reduce ESL.

3.    39 regions throughout the country will work together to implement measures to combat ESL. The regions will receive funding to develop policies themselves. Good examples are actively promoted online and during regional and national conferences.

4.    Extra facilities for vulnerable youth: a combination of regular education with care and support and vocational training if necessary.

5.    In secondary vocational education: intensification of first year teaching, close pupil supervision and career guidance.


I strongly believe that ESL can be prevented by providing quality education and offering individuals and society hope for the future. This means that employers have a responsibility too. Young people with completed vocational training are our country’s – and Europe’s – future employees and consumers. They need to complete their training with an internship, which is why it is crucial that businesses continue to offer worthwhile work placements, regardless of the crisis. It will be an investment in their own future.

I have faith that the Netherlands will achieve the objectives with the help of the new covenants and the commitment of the schools. Other countries are more than welcome to have look behind the scenes. And of course, we in turn are very interested in other countries’ approaches so that we can learn from them – because it is about the future of our youth.




[1] That means a diploma ISCED 3 or higher

[2] (secondary or secondary vocational pupils aged between 12 and 23 who left school without a basic qualification).