Dropping out of general upper secondary education can be an opportunity for young people, not just a risk of social exclusion

In studies charting the well-being of general upper secondary school students, dropping out has generally been considered an undesirable outcome that increases the risk of social exclusion. One researcher has found, however, that dropping out of general upper secondary school can also open up new opportunities and can be a justified step forward for a young person. Some drop-out cases are nevertheless concerning for schools’ guidance staff. There are differences in the perspectives of the guidance staff and the young people.

Approximately three per cent of general upper secondary school students drop out each year. The annual fluctuations are small, and the number of people dropping out in Finland is low in comparison to other countries. Not all drop-outs end up in the statistics, however, as the completion rate for those who have been studying for four and a half years is less than 90%.

Study counsellor and Master of Arts (Education) Kirsi Raetsaari, who is finalising her doctoral dissertation in educational psychology at the University of Oulu, has examined dropping out from general upper secondary school in the Finnish education system from the perspective of both the students themselves and their study counsellors.

The dissertation is the first of its kind. Dropping out has been previously studied in relation to vocational studies and higher education studies.

Raetsaari studied dropping out from general upper secondary school in terms of the difficulties encountered by the school students and the guidance they received. The guidance professionals were concerned about teachers' capacity to provide guidance. Guidance is barely covered, for example, in the teacher education syllabus.

General upper secondary schools have an obligation to offer guidance and alternative ways of completing studies if the student is at risk of dropping out. Increasing guidance does not only mean adding more study counsellors, but also examining the job descriptions of the entire teaching and student welfare staff. In addition, it has been more precisely specified in the curriculum for general upper secondary schools as a responsibility of subject teachers.

The study counsellors participating in the study considered the challenges of upper secondary school students from the perspective of absences, challenging social situations or learning difficulties. The young people, on the other hand, examined their study challenges in relation to their whole lives. The essential factors for successful studies included the significance of general upper secondary school as part of their life plans, the smoothness of daily life in upper secondary school also outside of the school itself, and the young person’s social relationships.

Although the aim of guidance is to support the student's own agency, the study revealed that young people's undeveloped agency may reduce their opportunities to receive guidance.

Based on the study, Kirsi Raetsaari sees dropping out of upper secondary school as an opportunity. "One of the goals for general upper secondary school is to clarify one’s plans for the future, and for some this may mean that vocational studies become a more appealing option," says Raetsaari.

"On the other hand, it is also possible to graduate from upper secondary school regardless of the challenges," she adds. Developing guidance methods that holistically consider the everyday life of upper secondary school students can improve support for those suffering from difficulties.

The material collected for the study is from the period before the introduction of compulsory upper secondary education, but the researcher does not believe that making the education compulsory would have had an impact on the continuation or termination of upper secondary school by young people participating in the study. "At best, the compulsory component can make students consider more carefully whether to drop out or not,” Raetsaari adds.

The research data was gathered from discussions with 18 young people who had experienced challenges in general upper secondary schools and 32 guidance professionals (rectors, study counsellors, school social workers, psychologists, outreach youth workers and those participating in guidance work for adult upper secondary school students). Half of the young people had dropped out of general upper secondary school and half had completed the matriculation examination despite their challenges.

Last updated: 20.4.2023