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Liekuut | Study choice must be a priority in preventing school dropout

08 January 2024

In ‘Liekuut’ — which means ‘straight ahead’ or ‘straightforward’ in the dialect of Groningen — we regularly share the view of one of our academics on a topical issue. In this way, we show how UG researchers are contributing to the societal debate.

Mandy van der Gaag
Mandy van der Gaag

After years of declining dropout rates, the number of young people dropping out of school increased to 30,000 last year, 25,000 of them in vocational education (mbo). This concerns young people aged between 12 and 23 who leave school without a diploma (mbo, havo, or vwo). Dijkgraaf, the outgoing Minister of Education, Culture & Science (OCW), has drawn up an action plan to reduce school dropout at all levels. The plan presents measures to identify problems in this group at an early stage. It also suggests offering guidance to young people at high risk of dropping out and making the educational system more attractive. However, Mandy van der Gaag, assistant professor of Developmental Psychology, wishes that the main reason that was mentioned is better addressed, which is making the wrong study choice.

Wrong study choice

‘We can see that the Minister is approaching the matter very vigorously, which is good. The focus is on coaching and guidance to identify a student’s personal circumstances and provide support, which is extremely important. However, what I miss in this plan of attack is a good solution to the fact that the majority of school dropouts report having made the wrong study choice. It is important to remember that 83% of dropouts are in vocational education – these are students who had to choose a very specific study programme at a very young age, usually 15. It is not surprising that it often goes wrong, as they still lack the skills to make major life choices and are still in the process of developing their identity. The current focus is mainly on keeping students in vocational education on board and improving information provision, but this does little to prevent wrong study choices.'

More guidance in study choice

‘Actually, preventing dropout in vocational education has to start with better guidance in secondary school. They can equip young people with the skills to make major life choices. The cognitive skills to make big decisions are not so well developed yet in teenagers: it is still very difficult for them to create an overview and anticipate consequences. As a school, you can help them to make an overview of study programmes, assess how well they suit them, write down pros and cons, rank them, and so on.’

Encouraging identity development

‘But even with this help, making a good study choice remains difficult to do if you don’t know what you like. That is where encouraging identity development comes in. Young people need to get a picture of what they like, what they find interesting and important. They learn this by gaining many different experiences with all kinds of professions and study programmes. This can be stimulated in the classroom by asking students what they can do with a particular course later on, but also by heading outside and exploring different studies and professions. Of course, this should be related to the students by asking them what they think, whether they can see themselves doing it, whether they find it interesting, appealing, or important. Therefore, making a good study choice involves much more than taking a test to identify potential study choices or attending an open day, as is often done now. It all boils down to identity development, which deserves much more attention.’

Study choice policy must be more robust

‘The problem is that offering guidance on study choice is not in the interest of secondary schools that have to carry it out. Their job ends when they hand out the diplomas, and there is no incentive to help pupils figure out what to do next. In this area, the study choice policy must be more robust. The Minister’s plan of attack is a good starting point, recognizing that students need to make better choices. At the same time, however, it misses the mark when it comes to implementation, by seeking the solution in allocating more funds to information provision by the vocational education sector. That is not going to work because making study choices also involves identity development, and learning how to make choices, and that requires much more than information provision. Funding and policy are needed for better guidance on study choice and identity development in secondary school because that is the key to substantially reducing dropout rates.’

Overview of all 'Liekuut' opinion pieces.

Last modified:08 January 2024 12.14 p.m.
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