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November 28th, 2016

The Drive to Reduce Dropout Rates programme in Dutch schools

At the turn of the century the Netherlands recognised, as did many other European countries, the risks posed by high rates of early school leaving (ESL). In a context of high youth unemployment and an ageing population, those leaving secondary education with few or no qualifications faced a difficult working life and created socioeconomic problems for the Netherlands as a whole.  In 2002, the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science introduced the Aanval op de uitval (Drive to Reduce Dropout Rates) programme, and by 2013 the annual rate of ESL had fallen from 71,000 to 27,000.

The initiative

The Dutch government introduced the Aanval op de uitval (Drive to Reduce Dropout Rates) programme in 2002. It saw this approach to ESL as one that would be maintained consistently over a long period of time. "Reducing the ESL rate is not a project with a beginning and an end. For long-term success, preventing pupils dropping out of school will need to become one of the primary processes at schools and within municipalities. It demands a long-term perspective, systematic efforts and resources, an integrated approach focusing on prevention [and early intervention], and tight organisation at regional level. All the various links in the chain - education, the labour market, and care - need to form a good basis for preventing young people dropping out of school."[6]

At the time, it had the objective of reducing the dropout rate to 2.5% by 2012, with no more than 35,000 students dropping out of school each year. "The fourth Balkenende Government aimed to reduce the number of new early school leavers from 71,000 in 2002 to 35,000 by 2012.”[7] This target has become more aggressive over time. “The Dutch Government has decided on a more ambitious target than that for the EU, namely a maximum of 25,000 new early school leavers each year by 2016.”[8]

The challenge

The problem of early school leaving (ESL) has been prevalent throughout Europe. The European Commission (EC), which made reducing ESL a priority, defines early school leavers as "people aged 18-24 who have only lower secondary education or less and are no longer in education or training".[1] The Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science defines them slightly differently: an "early school leaver is a young person between 12 and 23 years of age who does not attend school and who has not achieved a basic qualification (i.e. a senior general secondary, pre-university, or level-2 secondary vocational diploma)".[2]

ESL is an issue in the Netherlands as in the rest of the EU. “ESL in the Netherlands is an economic, social, and individual problem. Each young person has his or her own aims, wishes and ambitions, and having a good education increases the likelihood of achieving them. The Dutch knowledge economy requires well-educated employees, while Dutch society also finds itself confronted [with an older] population, with the pressure on the labour market consequently increasing.”[3]

The lack of qualifications is a crucial element of ESL. “Every year, many students drop out of school without obtaining a higher secondary education diploma. This is not desirable in a knowledge-driven economy, not only for society's productiveness, but also for individual development."[4] The individual is at greater risk of failing to find productive employment and of suffering the associated problems of poverty and ill-health, while the Dutch nation risks a lack of social cohesion as a result of disaffection among its citizens. While the Netherlands compared reasonably well with other EU15 countries[5] with regard to ESL, it recognised that the problem was important and had to be addressed.

The public impact

By 2011, great strides had already been made. "At national level, there were 38,600 new ESLs between 1 October 2010 and 1 October 2011. This figure is based on more accurate records than previously. The national ESL percentage for the 2010-2011 school year has fallen to 2.9%. At secondary schools, that figure has fallen to 1.0% and at schools for (senior) secondary vocational education to 7.2%.”[9]

In a March 2014 report, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science was able to report an even greater reduction in ESL. “Since 2002, the “Drive to Reduce Drop-out Rates” has already led to a reduction from 71,000 in 2001 to 27,950 (provisional result for the 2012-2013 school year).[10]

Stakeholder engagement

The main stakeholders are the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science and the provincial administrations and educational institutions engaged in implementing the government's policies. The key government body is a special ESL unit within the Ministry. The EC is a major stakeholder, as reducing ESL is one its key social and educational policies and it has a specific working group on ESL.

The Dutch government has opted for a devolved approach. "A lump-sum fee has been allocated to regions which have had the freedom to use the fund in the way they see best possible manner to fit local needs, although the funding is aimed at encouraging a partnership approach to tackling the problem (partnerships between schools, municipalities, youth and care services, employers, etc.). This approach has been encouraged as schools and municipalities have a clearer idea of the situation in their area (as opposed to national agencies) and can target particular problem schools."[11]

As a means to meeting its targets, the Ministry enters into performance agreements with the regional stakeholders, the Registration and Coordination Centres (RMCs). "In the long-term performance agreements the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science has agreed with all 39 RMC regions that the target in 2016 has to be no more than 25,000 new ESLs."[12] The best-performing region is Zuid-West Friesland, while the worst-performing is the Rijnmond.

Political commitment

The Dutch government is heavily committed to this policy, and the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science sees it as a long-term programme with very important objectives. It has provided significant funding to the RMCs to deliver the programme and has signed exacting performance agreements with them. "Two four years agreements are signed between the Ministry and regions which stipulate the progress each region is expected to make in that time in reducing ESL. 39 covenants were signed for the period of 2008-2011 and new contracts were drawn for the period 2012-2015.”[13]

There has been a cross-party commitment to the policy, regardless of the actual political complexion of the government. “The [Peer Learning Activity] (PLA) participants were impressed by the ongoing commitment of different, consecutive governments on the issue of ESL in the Netherlands. The original target was to halve the number of dropouts from 71,000 (5.5%) in 2002 to 35,000 (2.5%) in 2012. This was a target introduced by the government of Balkenende. In 2010, the new Rutte-Verhagen government decided to place further focus on the topic by introducing another, tougher target. A target of 25,000 new early school leavers by 2016 was set. All the main political parties competing over the September 2012 elections also confirmed their commitment to the programme."[14]

The shared commitment has enabled the longer term view to prevail. "This ongoing commitment helps to ensure that the approach to tackling the problem is a long-term one and emphasises that ESL is seen as a societal and economic problem as well as a problem at the level of the individual, thus an important one to tackle in order for the country to remain competitive in today's knowledge based economy.”[15]

Public confidence

One reaction of Dutch schoolchildren to the government's ESL policy is that it not sufficiently well publicised. "Dutch students don’t see that there is a lot of publicity on the subject of ESL, a lot of attention on student’s progress and guidance, and creating a positive and inclusive climate. They think that to train teachers in new and inspiring teaching methods and to invest in how to work with and to inspire the individual youngster will be an adequate solutions. Both students and teachers think that monitoring students’ progress, taking preventive actions in time (like remedial teaching, extra training and guidance) and creating a positive and attractive learning climate within the VET [Vocational Education and Training] institute are good interventions to prevent ESL."[16]

Clarity of objectives

The objectives were clearly set out and measurable, and the targets were stated in terms of numbers, percentages and the relevant time period. "The Drive to Reduce Dropout Rates programme (2002) was introduced by the Dutch government with the goal of reducing the dropout rate to 2.5% by 2012, with no more than 35,000 students dropping out of school."[17]

Once it was apparent that these targets would be met and surpassed, they were revised to be tougher (see The Initiative above). Moreover, the objectives addressed the relevant issues, and policymakers developed a suitably long-term approach.

Strength of evidence

There has been strong evidence from academic research that reducing ESL contributes to national socioeconomic health. "'The economic welfare of individuals and the competitive advantage of nations have come to depend on knowledge, skills and enterprise of the workforce' (Brown et al., 2003). Investment in human capital plays a key role in economic prosperity. The human capital theory suggests that schooling raises productivity and earnings (Becker, 1992, 1993) and can serve as one's signal of productivity (Spence, 1973). Nelson and Phelps (1966) and Schultz (1967) treat human capital of the workforce as a crucial factor for adoption of innovative and productive technologies."[18]

Research also indicated that "These so-called 'dropout students' or 'early school leavers' constitute a group that is heavily at risk (Psacharopoulos, 2007). They have a relatively higher risk of (1) entering a vicious circle in which on turn their children obtain lower education levels (e.g., Bowles, 1972; McLanahan, 1985; Anger and Heineck, 2009), (2) long-term unemployment or failing to secure productive employment (e.g., Rumberger and Lamb, 2003; OECD, 2008), (3) suffering from health problems (e.g., Groot and Maassen van den Brink, 2007) or (4) lack of social cohesion (e.g., Milligan et al., 2004; van der Steeg and Webbink, 2006). At the Lisbon 2000 summit, the EC decided to aim for a lower dropout rate, among other benchmarks. The average rate of early school leavers should be no more than 10% by 2012."[19]

As to the formulation of the policy, this focused on preventive measures. There were four such measures that evidence had shown to be effective: "mentoring and coaching, care and advisory teams, smoothing transition, and extended school".[20]


The financial feasibility was guaranteed by funding from the Dutch government, which was implementing a policy supported by the EU. The lump sum given to RMCs has been seen as a successful funding approach (see Stakeholder Engagement above) by giving some degree of autonomy to the organisations with the best understanding of the problem.

This funding was reinforced by incentives, which have evolved over time. "Financial incentives were also given to schools during the previous programme period. At first schools received EUR2,000 for every student that they kept in school in comparison to the year before. However this amount was later increased to EUR2,500 per student, as the ESL rates came down and it was recognised that the prevention of ESL becomes progressively more difficult as the number of early school leavers falls. These two sources of funding have now been removed and replaced by a funding based on achievements on ESL on relative (percentage-based) reductions in ESL, no more on absolute figures."[21]

There was also funding targeted at those pupils most resistant to the ESL reduction programme. "As an additional funding for the period from 2008 to 2011, a so-called ‘Plus programme' funding was made available for programmes for young people with particularly complex set of support needs. In 2012 this extra funding became an integral (‘mainstream') part of the overall ESL funding.”[22]

The technical feasibility of the programme was underpinned by academic research (see Strength of Evidence above) and the overall feasibility was demonstrated by the very significant reduction in ESL over the first decade of its life.


The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science manages the Drive to Reduce Dropout Rates programme at national level. It has defined the roles very clearly and also ensures timely reporting of ESL data. “In the Netherlands, a special unit within the Ministry of Education manages the national programme for reducing ESL. Six ‘account managers’ have been assigned responsibility for ESL across a number of regions. They negotiate agreements with the regional representatives, monitor progress and also provide assistance and support for their regional, local and school level actors. In addition, they also facilitate the exchange of experiences with other regions or schools and hold regular meetings with key people from within the region.”[23]


There is a comprehensive policy monitoring of the Drive to Reduce Dropout Rates programme by academic researchers. “The Early School Leaver Monitor, carried out by the Research Centre for Education and the Labour Market at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, collects information on an annual basis on the reasons why young people drop out of school. Research carried out in 2011 surveyed 2,145 early school leavers who had left education without a basic qualification. The research findings revealed that the principal reasons for ESL were education related (cited as the main reason by 45% of respondents), followed by physical or mental health complaints (18%), followed by personal reasons, and labour market pull factors (mainly cited by pupils from vocational courses)”[24]

The members of the EC's ESL working party saw evidence that the data collected on ESL in the Netherlands is used at national level in the following ways:

  • "To monitor progress towards national targets set for the reduction of ESL;
  • "To monitor the progress of regional partnerships and individual schools towards ESL reduction targets set out for them;
  • "To target resources where they are needed most so as to address the problem of ESL in as effective manner as possible; and
  • "To put pressure on under-performing regions, local authorities and schools to improve their performance by enabling regular comparisons between regions, local authorities and individual school/training institutions in other parts of the country and/or importantly also with similar student populations.”[25]

The fact that, in the Netherlands, each student has a unique reference number and retains this number throughout their educational career, regardless of any change in school, municipality or region, makes facilitates tracking the progress of all pupils.


The actors involved in the initiative have cooperated effectively in reducing the rate of ESL. “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 coordinates with other departments."[26]

The performance agreement give the schools an incentive to deliver results, and there is an openness about disseminating the outcomes. "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 EUR2,500 for every early school leaver less than in the reference year. In addition, the covenant partners can apply for grants for special regional programmes."[27] ESL is presented to the pupils as a social as well as an educational issue, so that they see the wider problems and the benefits of reducing dropout rates.


Aanval op schooluitval (Drive to Reduce Dropout Rates), 2014, Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, The Netherlands


The approach to Early School Leaving, March 2014, Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, The Netherlands


Dropout prevention measures in the Netherlands, an evaluation, Kristof De Witte and Sofie J. Cabus, 26 April 2010, Maastricht University


Peer Learning Activity (PLA): Reducing early school leaving in the Netherlands, September 2012, Thematic Group on Early School Leaving (EC), Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, The Netherlands


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