Why do some adolescents discontinue education?

As the world gears up to reach Goal 4 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (for all children to complete primary and secondary education by 2030), we are confronted with the challenge of retaining young people in schools particularly as they move into middle and late adolescence. Recent reports highlight that 1 in 11 primary school aged children, 1 in 6 lower secondary school age adolescents, and 1 in 3 upper secondary school age adolescents are not in school (UIS, GEM Report 2016). Of those adolescents not in school, more than half live in southern Asia (100.8 million) and sub-Saharan Africa (93.3 million), and the current completion rate of upper secondary education in low-income countries is a meagre 14%.

In our chapter ‘Push Out, Pull Out, or Opting Out? Reasons cited by adolescents for discontinuing education in four low- and middle-income countries' in the recently published Handbook of Development Research and its Impact on Global Policies, Protap and I tease out key reasons cited by children in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam for leaving schools across adolescence, drawing upon data from Young Lives. This chapter was the topic of a panel discussion at this year’s Society for Research on Adolescence Meeting that took place last week, focusing on the importance of investing in adolescent development and ways of building their capacity, engagement, and participation.

By recognising that school leaving is not an event, but a culmination of an interplay of various factors related to home, school and individual choices, we adopt a life course perspective in analysing reasons stated by adolescents for discontinuing education during adolescence. We broadly categorised the reasons into push factors, pull factors, and opted-out factors:

  • Pull factors are related to factors outside school such as social and economic disadvantage that affect regular attendance in school. Such factors include paid work and other responsibilities that would adversely affect school attendance and continuity.
  • Push factors refer to school related factors which ultimately result in dropout.
  • Opted out factors include certain individual behaviours (such as truancy), personal characteristics, and attitude (disinterest toward schooling, motivation, etc.).


Pull Factors

The highest number of adolescents discontinuing education by 19 years of age was observed in Vietnam (54%), followed by India (51%), Peru (49 %), and Ethiopia (41%). These percentages of course mask specific patterns of why children drop out in early, middle, and late adolescence across the four countries, with reasons for leaving school complex. We know that adolescents’ agency and educational trajectories are often highly constrained; by poverty, gendered roles and expectations, and increasing household responsibilities based on location and family circumstance.

Whereas girls were 29% less likely to drop out than boys by age 19 in both Ethiopia and Vietnam, the relationship was reversed in India, where girls were 150% more likely to leave education compared to boys. Besides household dynamics and shocks, boys in particular were found to discontinue schooling mainly due to increased engagement in paid work, while girls spend long hours in domestic chores at the cost of attending school. Unsurprisingly, children from top wealth tercile households across all four study countries are less likely to discontinue education (by 40% in Ethiopia, 69% in India, 62% in Peru, and 63% in Vietnam). Maternal education and maternal aspirations also emerge as strongly associated with children continuing education in Vietnam, Ethiopia and India. For example, mothers who aspired for their children to enter university were 25% (Ethiopia), 73% (India), and 72% (Vietnam) less likely to drop out of school as compared to children whose mothers had lower educational aspirations.

Findings revealed that pull factors emerge as the greatest contributor toward children discontinuing education as they enter middle and late adolescence. Child marriage, paid work, looking for work as well as domestic chores accounted for 77.3% of the total pull factors reported in four countries.


Push Factors and Opted Out

The second most important category is related to the push factors, which account for 22.5% of the total reasons reported, followed by the opt-out factor, which accounted for 19.7% of the total reasons cited for leaving school. The most important push factor reported by adolescents was “fees too expensive,” which accounted for 38.6% of all push factors, followed by “banned from school because children failed to achieve necessary grade” (i.e. expulsion) (24.3%). Bullying and distance of school from home were the other reasons cited for discontinuing education.

Interestingly, ‘truancy’ emerged as the most cited reason for opting out of school and constituted 59.5% of opted-out reasons. ‘Disinterest in studies’ was another reason cited by children and this may well be related to pressures to earn as well as in-school factors.


How can we support those adolescents who want to continue in their education?

Undoubtedly, adolescent educational trajectories are moulded by the social and cultural context in which they occur, despite commonalities such as puberty and socio-cognitive development. However, our pro-poor sample reveals that both adolescent boys and girls faced myriad challenges and pressures; for instance, girls experienced restriction on their mobility post-puberty while  boys across all four study countries faced familial, societal, and peer pressures to earn money. Given that out-of-school factors or pull factors emerged as the greatest contributor toward children discontinuing education as they entered middle and late adolescence, it is important that the most disadvantaged families are reached by adequate social protection 'safety nets'.

Capacity building of teachers and school personnel to identify children “at risk” of dropping out in order to provide them with the necessary academic and psychosocial support is crucial to countering push-out factors. One of the key deterrents to continuation of education is the long distance related to travel to school and expense related particularly to secondary education that the poorest families can ill afford. This needs to be given the highest priority by policymakers, and ensuring provision of free, publicly funded, quality primary and secondary education must become a global reality in the coming years.

While opting out was the least cited reason for leaving school, it is important that we recognise that disengagement with schooling may be the result of ‘irrelevant’ curricula, lack of faith in schooling, poor role models, as well as expectations from significant others. We need to consider a multidimensional effort by state, communities, and families to address structural, household, and individual barriers that impede the smooth transition of adolescents through secondary schooling. On the one hand, accessible second-chance schemes must evolve to ensure that education systems provide adolescents with easy and flexible options to pursue their education. On the other hand, communities need to provide adolescents with support services, so providing those “at risk” with timely support and intervention while empowering families to support their children, particularly girls, to complete their education by challenging discriminatory gender norms and expectations as children enter middle and late adolescence. This would mark concrete steps toward meeting SDG4, realising the potential of adolescents, representing some 17.3% of the world’s population.


For related updates on the Society’s Adolescence meeting, follow #SRA18 and #YLAdolescence on Twitter @yloxford.


‘I Will Achieve Everything On My Own’: The Association Between Early Psychosocial Skills and Educational Progression Through Adolescence in India

Renu Singh
Education transitions
Gender, adolescence & youth
Adolescence and youth
Working paper

Psychosocial skills are an important element of the confidence and motivation to progress in academic life. This working paper utilises a factorial logistics model to highlight the association between psychosocial skills at age 12 and educational progression through adolescence (to age 19), analysing Young Lives quantitative survey data of Older Cohort children and longitudinal qualitative data collected between 2007 and 2014 in undivided Andhra Pradesh, India.

Quantitative data analysis shows that psychosocial skills such as subjective well-being and self-efficacy at 12 years old are significantly positively associated with retention in education at 19 years old. These findings are supported by qualitative data. Findings reveal that household wealth, children’s paid work at age 12, as well as caregivers’ education and occupational aspirations for their children play a significant role in shaping the self-efficacy and subjective well-being of children. Gender, birth order and caste also play a significant role in framing the association between psychosocial skills at 12 years old and educational outcomes at 19 years old. Given these findings, it would be useful for programme interventions aiming to retain children throughout secondary schooling to focus on building parental aspirations, particularly for girls and socially and economically disadvantaged households. Other areas that require policy attention are around providing social protection to disadvantaged households and developing teachers’ skills in order to encourage and build the psychosocial competencies of children.

Youth Transitions - Skills, Work and Family Formation: Preliminary Findings from the Round 5 Survey in India

Employment and labour market preparedness
Gender, adolescence & youth
Country report

Round 5 Longitudinal Youth Transitions: Skills Work and Family Formation Fact Sheet

This fact sheet presents findings from the fifth round of the Young Lives survey of children in United Andhra Pradesh in 2016. Young Lives has followed two cohorts of children since 2002, most recently focusing on our Older Cohort (22-year-olds in 2016) to explore issues related to education, digital skills, transitions to the labour market, and on marriage and fertility. Given that a large and growing segment of India’s population is under 25 years, attainment of education and skills development are critical to ensuring that this turns into a demographic dividend not a liability. What these findings reveal is a young generation experiencing more education, but that poorer socio-economic groups are still leaving education sooner, and are more likely to be in work rather than any form of study, than more advantaged groups. Young women remain very much more likely to be married than young men, with many still marrying below the legal age. Gender and socio-economic divides are evident in access to the new technologies that are increasingly important to 21st century opportunities

Key Findings:

  • A substantial difference in the rate of enrolment in education and training at age 22 exists between young men (26%) and young women (16%).
  • While 35% of young people had either completed or were pursuing higher education at age 22, 22% of the Older Cohort had discontinued education at primary or upper primary level.
  • More men (76%) were engaged in economic activity by age 22 than women of the same age (47%). This was paralleled by more women (56%) than men (11%) being married, the highest rates being among Backward Class (54%) and rural young women (66%).
  • Participation in agricultural and non agricultural sectors combined is significantly higher among Scheduled Castes (70%), poorer households or bottom wealth tercile households (81%) and those living in rural locations (68%).
  • Around 18% of 22-year-olds are using computers, 4% tablets, and 21% internet, and 34% are using mobile phones with internet access, although there are substantial gender and socio-economic inequalities.
  • The use of mobile phones with internet access is three times higher among youth from top wealth tercile households (55%), than among youth from bottom wealth tercile households (17%).

Poverty and Intergenerational Change: Preliminary Findings from the Round 5 Survey in India

Poverty and inequality
Country report

Round 5 Longitudinal Poverty and Intergenerational Change Fact Sheet

This fact sheet presents findings from the fifth round of the Young Lives survey of children in United Andhra Pradesh in 2016. Young Lives is a longitudinal study on childhood poverty that has followed two cohorts of children born seven years apart. It has been collecting household and child-level survey data from 3,000 households in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana since 2002. This fact sheet presents preliminary findings on changes that have taken place in household poverty in urban and rural locations as well as in different caste groups. The analysis shows a definite increase in wealth – as measured by a composite index of consumer durables, access to services, and housing conditions – of the Younger Cohort households in 2016 compared to 2002 (Round 1 survey), with the highest percentage change in wealth over that period among Scheduled Tribes, households where mothers had no formal education, and households in rural locations. However, inequalities remain.

Key Findings:

  • Overall there is an increase in average wealth over time with the highest percentage change between Rounds 1 and 5 for Scheduled Tribes households.
  • While differences in household wealth based on location and caste have reduced over time, substantial inequalities persist between Other Castes on the one hand and Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes on the other.
  • The highest percentage change in access to services is seen among Scheduled Tribes, in rural households, and in households where mothers had no formal education.
  • The largest change is seen in the average access to consumer durables, particularly among Scheduled Tribes, Scheduled Castes, households from rural areas, and where mothers had no formal education.
  • By 2016, access to safe drinking water and electricity is near universal across all locations.
  • Only half of households have access to sanitation. Although there have been improvements since 2002, access to sanitation facilities remains at 30% among Scheduled Tribes compared to 55% for the other three caste groups, and 31% in rural areas compared to 95% in urban areas.
  • More households report vulnerability to economic shocks in 2016 than in 2006.