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Bridging the credibility gap: The need for an ‘assertive outreach’ strategy to engage adult early school leavers

Paul Downes, Director of the Educational Disadvantage Centre, Institute of Education, Dublin City University, identifies where the gaps are in provision for adult early school leavers and puts the case for assertive outreach.

Early School Leavers Assertive Outreach


Paul Downes, Director of the Educational Disadvantage Centre, Institute of Education, Dublin City University, identifies where the gaps are in provision for adult early school leavers and puts the case for assertive outreach.

There is a need to question how credible many approaches are to reaching marginalised groups in Europe, including adult early school leavers. At times interventions seem to be based on the idea that leaflets, websites, posters and other forms of information will suffice to engage ‘hard-to-reach’ groups. Implicit in this very terminology is that when such marginalised groups are not reached by these information-reliant approaches, they are disinterested, and that they are therefore ‘hard to reach’. However, we need to question the communicative approach itself, rather than blame the individuals who do not become enchanted by such ‘information’.


We need more than information campaigns

There is a large gap between information and making engagement meaningful. We need outreach strategies to fill this gap and reach adult early school leavers. Many early school leavers experience a strong distrust in an educational system (and possibly society) that has failed them. Their memories of school may be painful ones, whether due to conflicts with teachers who helped to alienate them from the system, or through experience of failure or bullying in school.

A primary goal of outreach needs to be to foster trust – trust between the early school leaver and the system, trust in the strengths and capacities of the early school leaver, trust that a more flexible, individually responsive educational system does exist for them if they return to formal education.

More school, just like before, is not an appetising choice to be placed on the menu for many who have left the education system early.


Three key questions we must ask

Information-based communication approaches focus on the what question. But we need to focus on the where, the how and who questions:

  •  The where question asks about the location from which the early school leaver is engaged with.
  •  The how question asks about the way the person is being communicated with.
  •  The who question not only asks about the specific needs of the person being reached out to, but also asks who is the person communicating to that early school leaver.


In some approaches in Europe, there is recognition of the where question, through the need for a community outreach approach. Services are located in easy-to-access and culturally familiar places to reach those on the edges of society. Such community outreach approaches recognise the importance of location and also the place where the person feels he or she belongs. Community lifelong learning centres offer one such model of community outreach to engage those whose needs have not been met in the school system.

Emphasis on the how question as part of outreach approaches, gives attention to a dialogue process between the early school leaver and the staff members from the ‘system’. Whereas information-reliant approaches assume a one-way, one directional flow of information from the system to the passive individual, a dialogue process is two-way. The approach needs to be interpersonal, relational, contextual and pragmatic. This relational outreach approach requires dialogue with individuals and group cohorts. It must engage with the stories and world of meaning of the individuals being reached out to. Discussion requires understanding how reengaging with the education system can meet the individual’s needs, life circumstances and also help overcome barriers to reengagement that the individual and his or her peers may experience. Often a message about the benefits of reengaging with education gains credibility through word of mouth at a local level between friends and peers from marginalised communities. This is increasingly being recognised also for access to higher education issues.


Let’s focus on the ‘who’ question, especially adults over 24

A key overlooked feature of many approaches to engaging with marginalised early leavers from the system is the who question – who is the person communicating with the early school leaver? Does this person share a cultural affinity with the early school leaver? Are they living in the same locality, do they share a common ethnicity, social class and/or religion? On what basis will this person be trusted by people who may have been let down time and again by the education system? There are isolated European examples of sensitivity to the ‘who’ of outreach. For example, the Swedish project, Unga in, now being carried forward through the UNGKOMP project, employed outreach mediators who were from the same ethnic background as those they tried to reach to engage them in employment and education initiatives. Similarly, Roma mediators in Sofia municipality (Bulgaria) are often from the Roma community themselves.

Another dimension to the ‘who’ question operates against the background of the EU2020 headline target of reducing early school leavers to 10% across the EU. The focus of this headline target is on the age group of 18-24-year olds. This raises the question about a strategic gap at EU level to focus on engaging those older than 24 years, who may have left school early. A distinct outreach approach to engage with their needs may look different for one from those under 25.

Those over 25 who left school early are far from being a homogenous group. There is a notable and consistent recognition in EU policy documents on lifelong learning and adult education of the importance of non-formal education. What is less clear is how a strategic vision is in place at EU level to engage with the different needs of those aged over 25 who have left school without the basic levels of educational attainment for active participation in society. Education services may also need to include a stronger focus on mental health and substance abuse supports for adults vulnerable to marginalisation; in doing so, community outreach lifelong learning centres to engage adult early school leavers may require more integration with multidisciplinary health related services as part of a ‘one stop shop’ model in a common location.


A model to address the key questions

Addressing the where, how and who questions requires an assertive outreach model to engage adult early school leavers across Europe, one that is relational, face-to-face and centred on the needs of the individual client. Such an assertive outreach approach not only addresses the where, how and who issues identified above, but adopts an individual, proactive outreach approach to engage with those on the margins of society. It fundamentally starts from where the person is, centred on the person’s needs.

Examples of key issues to be incorporated into an organisation’s assertive outreach strategic model would include the following questions:


  • Do you specifically design the outreach hours to meet the needs of the target group? Yes/No


  • Does your organisation explicitly adopt an inclusion principle in its outreach strategy, i.e., that the service must adapt to meet the client and to encourage the client to engage? Yes/No


  • Do your organisation’s outreach staff take steps to assess why a client may not be able to engage in the outreach service and adapt the service to overcome these challenges? Yes/No


  • Do you have a protocol to assess why a client may not be able to engage in the outreach service? Yes/No


  • Do you have a process to adapt the service when a client may not be able to engage with the outreach service? Yes/No 


It is not information gaps that are lacking, but rather gaps in strategies and modes of communicating. We cannot assume that organisations are even willing or aware of the need to broaden their outreach strategies. Outreach approaches must not be reduced to rhetoric or slogans. They must clearly address the adequacy of the where, how and who questions as part of a proactive, assertive outreach strategy.

Paul Downes is Director, Educational Disadvantage Centre, Senior Lecturer in Education (Psychology), St. Patrick's College, Institute of Education, Dublin City University, Member of the Coordinating Committee of the European Commission Network of Experts on the Social Aspects of Education and Training (NESET II) (2015)

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