ESL in the EU: Policy overview and development

Thursday 23 July 2015, by Urška Štremfel

In the OMC process the EU’s strategic goals on ESL are framed, measured by specific indicators and benchmarks (by 2020 the share of ESLers should be less than 10%), translated into national ESL policies and periodically monitored. Knowing and understanding this process among all relevant actors is crucial for their more proactive involvement in ESL policy-making and contributing to good governance in the EU.

The European educational space has widened and deepened in the last two decades, which can also be recognised in the field of ESL (e.g. Walkenhorst, 2008). Since 2000, when the Open Method of Coordination (OMC) was formally established as the framework for EU cooperation in the field of education, member states have been working intensively together in order to attain their common goal/benchmark “to reduce ESL to less than 10% by 2020”. The article systematically presents the normative framework of the EU cooperation in the ESL field in the last 20 years according to the OMC elements defined in Presidency Conclusions (2000) and illustrates how these elements have been put to good use in TITA EU member states (France, Luxemburg, Spain and Slovenia). The review presents examples of various general directions (e.g. Council Recommendations) as well as concrete policy and practical recommendations (e.g. Toolkits) for how to tackle ESL at the individual, school, local, regional, national and EU levels. The way EU member states transpose these EU guidelines into national policies (e.g. by setting national targets and publishing national strategies) is described along with the OMC policy learning framework (e.g. thematic working groups and policy learning activities) within which member states search for solutions to a commonly identified problem and share their related (good) practices. Finally, the role of regular (quantitative and qualitative) reporting in stimulating member states to achieve the commonly agreed goal is emphasised. The article concludes that for OMC to be an open, participative, accountable, effective and coherent process, contributing to good governance in the EU, all relevant actors in its process at all levels of the EU need to be more involved. Referring to different research findings (e.g. Lajh & Štremfel, 2011; Ecorys, 2014) this could also be ensured by better awareness of the potential of OMC, as presented in this article.


European cooperation in the field of education dates back over six decades, but the European Union’s (EU) competencies in this field have remained limited until more recently (Walkenhorst, 2008). The legal basis for this is presented in the Maastricht Treaty (1992), specifying that: “The Union shall contribute to the development of quality education by encouraging cooperation between member states and, if necessary, by supporting and supplementing their action, while fully respecting the responsibility of the member states for the content of teaching and the organisation of education systems and their cultural and linguistic diversity …”.

In that framework, the open method of coordination (OMC) was introduced as a (non-obligatory) method of EU cooperation in the field of education. The Lisbon Strategy (European Council, 2000) stated that it contains the following elements: a) fixing guidelines; b) establishing quantitative and qualitative indicators and benchmarks; c) translating these European guidelines into national and regional policies; and d) periodic monitoring, evaluation and peer review organised as mutual learning processes (see Figure 1).

In addition to the main OMC elements, the Strategy stated that “A fully decentralised approach will be applied in line with the principle of subsidiarity in which the Union, member states, the regional and local levels, as well as the social partners and civil society, will be actively involved, using variable forms of partnership” (European Council, 2000). The White Paper on Governance (European Commission, 2001) recognised that these OMC characteristics hold great potential for respecting the principles of openness, participation, accountability, effectiveness, coherence and therefore contributing to good governance in the EU.

Soon after the formal introduction of the OMC, early school leaving (ESL) was identified as one of five concrete strategic objectives of common EU cooperation in the education field (European Commission, 2002) and even today it still represents a priority area of EU cooperation in education and one of the five targets of the overall EU 2020 Strategy. In the meantime, a comprehensive framework for cooperation on the basis of the OMC has been developing, assisting member states in their search for solutions to this pressing problem of EU society.

The main aim of the article is to provide a review of the normative policy framework for common EU cooperation in the ESL field since 2000 onwards. The review is provided in line with the four elements of the OMC as defined in the Lisbon conclusions. Each OMC element is introduced in terms of: a) basic theoretical dispositions and scientific insights into its normative functions; b) concrete examples/definitions from policy documents on ESL accepted at the EU level; and c) practical insights into its implementation at the EU level and at the level of selected TITA participating states (France, Luxembourg, Spain and Slovenia). [1] As such, the article does not provide a review of in-depth theoretical conceptualisations of the OMC (e.g. Alexiadou, Fink-Hafner, & Lange, 2010; Borrás & Radaelli, 2010) or its analytical critics and problematisation (e.g. Hatzopoulos, 2007; Büchs, 2008). It aims to raise basic awareness and understanding of the normative policy framework in which policies against ESL are developed, implemented and evaluated in the EU.

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Figure 1. Tackling ESL up until 2020 within the OMC framework.


This article primarily originates from policy studies, which are recognised as important meso-level theories for explaining Europeanisation and the influence of soft law on member states. The article is qualitatively oriented and draws on a review of theoretical and empirical evidence. To address the article’s aims, we employ the following methods: (a) an analysis of relevant literature and secondary sources. Here we conducted a literature search of the scientific EBSCOhost and Web of Science online research databases. The main key words used in searching the relevant scientific literature were: early school leaving, open method of coordination, education, European Union, policy learning, benchmarking, monitoring. (b) An analysis of formal documents and legal sources at the EU and national levels (EU official documents in the field of educational policy, unofficial documents, press releases, an analysis of national policy documents (e.g. legislation, strategies, reports) in TITA participating countries (France, Luxembourg, Spain and Slovenia). Policy documents taken into account had to meet the following criteria: being published between 2009 and 2016 [2], being formed within the OMC framework.

Studying EU policies on ESL through the OMC lens

Fixing guidelines for the Union combined with specific timetables for achieving the goals (…) in the short, medium and long term

By establishing common educational goals, EU member states have aimed to coherently respond to common challenges, whilst retaining their individual sovereignty in the field of education. Establishing common goals and measuring progress according to specific guidelines demonstrate the political will to identify the common problems facing European education. Such identification can unleash the envisioned capacity of cooperation to foster the greater convergence of ideas (Dehousse, 2002; Gornitzka, 2006).

Common goals of European education are first initiated by general political strategic directions, such as the well-known anticipation of the Lisbon Strategy (European Council, 2000): “By 2010 the EU should become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world” and of the EU 2020 Strategy (European Council, 2009): “Smart, sustainable and inclusive growth”. These two high-level EU strategies put education in the heart of the EU integration and recognise its great contribution to realising the EU’s overall (social and economic) goals.

The EU 2020 strategy establishes two specific interrelated targets in the education field: to reduce rates of ESL below 10% and at least 40% of 30- to 34-year-olds having completed third-level education. In order to support the attainment of these goals, seven “flagship initiatives” have been developed within the Strategy, with two of them especially targeting education: An agenda for new skills and jobs and Youth on the Move. Both relate education to employability and at least indirectly point out the importance of cross-sectoral contributions in realising the EU’s overall strategic goals.

In addition to education’s generally recognised contribution to realising overall EU strategic development, more education-specific goals and guidelines are important for understanding common EU cooperation when it comes to tackling ESL.

On the basis of its predecessor ET 2010 (Council of the EU, 2002), in 2009 a new Working programme Education and Training 2020 (ET 2020) (Council of the EU, 2009) was accepted with the aim of supporting EU member states in further development of their education systems. It consists of four common strategic objectives: 1) Improving the quality and efficiency of education and training; 2) Promoting equity, social cohesion and active citizenship; 3) Making lifelong learning and mobility a reality; 4) Enhancing creativity and innovation, including entrepreneurship, at all levels of education and training. It defines a set of principles for achieving these objectives, as well as common working methods with priority areas for each periodic work cycle [3] (Council of the EU, 2009). ESL is related to all four strategic objectives, most directly to the third one in terms of its elaboration that “Education and training systems should aim to ensure that all learners including those from disadvantaged backgrounds complete their education”. Making ESL a priority area of EU cooperation in the period 2010–2020 gave a clear mandate to the European Commission, EU member states and all other relevant actors to closely work together. In that framework, various activities have been implemented with the result that many soft law (non-binding) documents have been accepted, providing general and more concrete directions for achieving the commonly agreed EU ESL goal.

Based on two European Commission communications (2011a; 2011b), the Council of the EU (2011) adopted Recommendations on policies to reduce ESL. The Council proposed six recommendations to EU member states, emphasising the importance of developing comprehensive, evidence-based prevention, intervention and compensation policies at all levels of education and as coordinated among different policy sectors. Following the progress made in 4 years by employing the OMC working methods, new Council conclusions (2015) on reducing ESL and promoting success in school have been accepted. The conclusions acknowledge the need for reinforced activities in pursuing the common EU goal, among them we expose the emphasis on prevention activities, committed participation and coordination between different policy areas, and the promotion of collaborative (whole-school) approaches to reducing ESL at the local level, as being the most relevant to the TITA project.

In order to make the achievement of agreed EU strategic goals measurable, indicators and benchmarks are established within the OMC framework. They are presented as the next OMC element in the section below.

Establishing, where appropriate, quantitative and qualitative indicators and benchmarks against the best in the world and tailored to the needs of different member states and sectors as a means of comparing best practice

The role of indicators (and benchmarks) in European education and training policy is twofold: to measure progress towards achieving commonly agreed goals and to highlight cases of good practice. By operationalising goals, indicators and benchmarks should lead to a greater transparency and a more comparable environment. They should not only be used to provide direction in those fields where more progress is required, but also be used as a tool for sanctioning and for increasing the consensus on common EU policies (Lange & Alexiadou, 2007).

As a means of monitoring progress and identifying challenges, as well as contributing to evidence-based policy-making, a series of ‘European benchmarks’ was established to support the EU 2020 and ET 2020 strategic objectives. As mentioned, in both documents the benchmark for ESL is defined “by 2020 the share of early leavers from education and training should be less than 10%”.

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Figure 2: Following the EU benchmark for ESL in selected TITA participating countries. Source: Eurostat.

Although presentations of benchmarks being attained are very simplified (see Figure 2), the unsettled questions about their development and appropriate interpretation are much more comprehensive.

Benchmarks are defined as reference levels for average European performance, meaning they should not be considered as concrete targets for individual member states to reach by 2020. Instead, member states (for example, both Slovenia currently with a 4.4% ESL rate and Spain currently with a 21.9% ESL rate) are invited to consider, based on their national priorities and after taking the changing economic circumstances into account, how and to what extent they can contribute to the collective achievement of the European benchmark through their national actions (Ecorys, 2014: 5).

It should be noted that benchmarks never show internal particularities/problems of a particular education system (e.g. in the case of ESL, different ESL rates between regions, different social groups within a country etc.) and that, when interpreting the ESL rates in a given country, other national contextual factors (e.g. welfare tradition, unemployment rate of ESLers etc.) should also be taken into consideration.

Another important issue present is the statistical infrastructure at both the EU level and the level of member states, which enables adequate measurement of a selected indicator/benchmark. As seen from the Education and Training Monitor (European Commission, 2015: 34), despite 15 years of common cooperation in the field, ensuring a comparable environment for measuring the ESL rate among all EU member states remains challenging.

Once EU member states agree on the particular indicator(s) and/or benchmark(s) they will use to measure the attainment of commonly agreed strategic goal(s), they sovereignly decide how they will translate the EU guidelines into their respective national contexts and which national policies they will develop in order to follow commonly agreed EU goals.

Translating these European guidelines into national and regional policies by setting specific targets

The OMC is particularly interesting for the way in which it directs both national and sub-national policy-making in EU matters (Alexiadou, 2007: 4). The OMC does not require new legislation or the transposition of EU legislation to suit European directives; further, this is not a precondition for change, reform or implementation within a respective member state (Lopez-Santana, 2006). Therefore, the EU’s influence in the education field is intended to be visible not just in structural and policy changes but also in the internalisation of European values and policy paradigms at the national level and in the way political debates and identities are changing. It is argued that the OMC has an impact especially on the cognitive level of public policies, for example, on the discourse of political actors and policy concepts. It stimulates national debates and provides various interests with arguments in support of policy change, and consequently offers arguments that legitimise national reforms (e.g. modernisation of education systems) (Radaelli, 2003).

In the case of ESL, the process of translating EU agendas into national contexts is anticipated in the following way: As part of the Europe 2020 strategy, member states have agreed at the highest political level to set national targets on reducing ESL, taking their starting position and national circumstances into account. It is supposed that (ambitious) national targets (e.g. 9.5% France, 10% Luxembourg, 15% Spain, 5% Slovenia) foster policy development in this area and increase the pressure for efficient and effective national policies. Strategies and actions for pursuing targets are elaborated in National Reform Programmes. In addition, the Council of the EU (2011) invited member states to “ensure that comprehensive strategies on ESL are in place by the end of 2012, and that they are implemented in line with national priorities and the Europe 2020 objectives”. Education and Training Monitor 2015 reveals that the majority of member states has implemented the Council Recommendation by adopting either explicit comprehensive strategies (e.g. France) or other national policies (e.g. Luxembourg and Spain) (European Commission, 2015: 37).

In the OMC framework various operational documents have been accepted at the EU level, assisting member states in implementing their national policies on ESL. The working group on ESL outlined 12 key messages for policy-makers and translated them into practical tools through a checklist regarding comprehensive policies on ESL (European Commission, 2013). The working group on school policy created policy messages, identifying key conditions for implementing a whole-school approach to tackling ESL as well as an online “Toolkit for Schools”, supporting (national) policy-makers and practitioners in their efforts to tackle ESL (European Commission, 2015).

The review shows that, despite the non-obligatory nature of the OMC (no harmonisation of EU laws), in nation states various policy measures are accepted which, at least to some extent, are initiated by EU-level processes. Since the process of translating EU guidelines into national contexts is very differently and in some states weakly organised, Ecorys (2014) recommends that the European Commission and member states share their (good) practices in this regard.

For translating EU guidelines into national contexts and developing their national policies on ESL, member states have a variety of mutual policy learning activities available within the OMC framework. They enable member states to share good practices and therefore collectively search for solutions which lead to the achievement of commonly agreed goals (as measured by indicators and benchmarks).

Periodic monitoring, evaluation and peer review organised as mutual learning processes

To reflect the complexity of the last OMC element, we split its presentation into two parts. The first part presents peer review organised as a mutual learning process and the second part presents periodic monitoring and evaluation.

Various academics (e.g. Gornitzka, 2006; Radaelli, 2008; Lange & Alexiadou, 2010) claim that the OMC represents the “architecture of policy learning”. Seen in this way, the OMC is an institutional arrangement which organises policy learning process among member states. This means that, irrespective of their different traditions, systemic differences, and the lack of a normative interpretation of European integration, states can learn from each other and improve their policies for achieving common goals. Since all actors aspire towards the same goals, mutual learning is regarded as a rational form of collective problem-solving. The OMC thus acts as a radar by searching for solutions and new applicable knowledge through an iterative process of organising peer leaning activities and sharing best practices.

The OMC framework reveals that mutual learning takes place through peer-learning activities, conferences and seminars, high-level forums, experts groups, panels, studies and analyses, involving the relevant stakeholders. Outputs can take the form of overviews of policy measures and examples of good practices (e.g. an inventory of good practices), analytical papers, guidelines and handbooks for policy implementation (Ecorys, 2014: 7).

Thematic working groups as the most important form of policy learning within the framework of the OMC and ET 2020 at the EU level are established on the basis of the rich experiences of their predecessor – clusters in ET 2010. The mandates of working groups correspond to the priorities of each (3-year) working cycle. In line with defining ESL as a priority, two working groups were especially dealing with ESL in the ET 2020 framework:

  • A thematic working group on ESL was active from 2011 to 2013 and consisted of policy-makers, practitioners and experts from 27 EU member states and key European stakeholder organisations. It focused on developing (effective) comprehensive policies on ESL. Its activities included peer-learning visits to the Netherlands and France and a peer review event in Brussels in March 2013. The main conclusions and lessons learnt by the thematic working group are presented in its final report (European Commission, 2013). It aims to inspire and generate the development of a comprehensive approach to ESL, especially with a checklist as a tool for self-assessment with which member states can evaluate the comprehensiveness of their current ESL policies and identify areas for further improvement (European Commission, 2016).
  • The working group on Schools Policy was active between 2013 and 2015, consisting of policy-makers from almost all EU member states and representatives of European social partners. It focused on holistic and collaborative ESL prevention and early intervention activities at the school and local levels. Based on its activities (peer learning, analysis of case studies, mapping of school governance arrangements and of practices to support learners, inputs from international research, dialogue with experts, and in-depth country-focused workshops), the working group published Policy messages on A whole school approach to ESL, as well developed the online platform “European Toolkit for Schools for inclusive education and early school leaving prevention”, which provides support to schools to prevent ESL.

The review reveals that the mandates of the new thematic working groups (2016–2018) do not explicitly cover the ESL issue [4], although: a) ESL is identified in priority areas and concrete issues for European cooperation in education and training until 2020 (Council and European Commission, 2015); and b) the EU has still not reached its headline target (less than 10% of ESLers by 2020) (European Commission, 2015).

OMC policy learning activities are supposed to be implemented at different levels, by either organising activities at the EU level or stimulating member states for national policy learning, as in the case of Council conclusions (2015) which invite member states “to encourage and promote collaborative (‘whole-school’) approaches to reducing ESL at local level, for instance through cooperation between schools of different types and levels which are located in the same area, as well as networking and multi-professional learning communities at regional, national and international levels /…/”.

In order to monitor the success of EU member states in attaining the commonly agreed goals, various progress reports are published within the OMC framework. They help recognise potential problems, identify good practices and therefore stimulate policy learning among member states concerning how to meet commonly agreed goals.

For national actors, the periodic monitoring and regular reporting in the OMC are a special task with set deadlines. These reports feed information back into the European education process regarding how measures framed at the EU level have been taken into consideration in the member states (qualitative reports) and how they help in realising commonly defined goals (quantitative reports). National reports are then integrated into the various EU-level reports. There are differing theoretical considerations about how these progress reports by either literally exposing countries which have not implemented EU recommendations or numerically showing which countries are lagging behind in achieving the commonly agreed goals, or by naming and shaming exert pressure on member states to perform well (improve their educational policies and practices in line with the commonly agreed direction) (Gornitzka, 2006; Radaelli, 2008; Lange & Alexiadou, 2010).

Member states are supposed to report on their ESL policies and their results in both the EU 2020 and ET 2020 frameworks. In the EU 2020 setting, they prepare annual reports on their annual National Reform Programmes. The European Commission and the Council prepare country-specific recommendations based on their analyses. While these Recommendations are not legally binding, their influence relies on their political weight (Ecorys, 2014: 11). Although they are mostly focused on the broader macro-economic situation in member states, in some cases they provide concrete recommendations for an education/ESL field. For example, the Council of the EU recommends that France “take further actions to reduce educational inequalities in particular by strengthening measures on ESL” (Council, 2014a) and recalled in relation to Spain that “Some progress has been registered in measures to fight ESL /…/, but full implementation and efficient use of funding remain crucial”.

In the ET 2020 framework, two kinds of progress reports are prepared. [5] The Annual Education and Training Monitor (e.g. European Commission, 2015), based on data from Eurostat, the OECD and other statistical organisations provides an insight into the evolution of all and particular member states with respect to the ET 2020 benchmarks and indicators (annual qualitative reports). Biannually, the member states also prepare qualitative reports on their progress on the basis of a prepared template. These reports are analysed and summarised by the European Commission and the Council, assessing the EU’s overall progress towards realising goals, and exposing the group of countries performing well/poorly or having good practices in attaining particular goals. For example, in 2015 they exposed that Europe was not on track to achieve the headline target, there is an urgent need to strengthen the (coherent) policy approach. It points out that there should be a stronger focus on preventive and early intervention measures in the contexts of teacher education, continuing professional development and quality early childhood education and care, and that only a few countries (including France and Luxembourg) take a systematic approach to collecting, monitoring and analysing data on ESL.

When EU member states realise in their progress reports how successful/unsuccessful they have been in a certain working cycle/period towards attaining a particular indicator and benchmark and the long-term strategic goal, the OMC process is not finished. On the contrary, it is iterative process (see Figure 1) that, by once again using all the OMC elements, enables member states to face the same or new educational/ESL challenges in a new working cycle/period.

Conclusions – towards the OMC as good governance

The OMC framework (its elements and process) at least normatively contribute to the achievement of the common EU strategic goals and in ensuring good governance in the EU. Realising the OMC as good governance requires that various actors are actively involved in policy learning processes at different levels of the EU. Research results (Lajh & Štremfel, 2011; Ecorys, 2014) show that the OMC process and its potential are currently not well known among (national) actors, what may be seen as an important obstacle to their more proactive role in the OMC process.

From that perspective, it is crucial that all actors important for tackling ESL in the EU (not only policy-makers and experts, but also non-governmental organisations, social partners and practitioners) know and understand the OMC process through which EU strategic goals are framed (e.g. smart, sustainable and inclusive growth), measured by specific indicators and benchmarks (by 2020 the share of ESLers from education and training should be less than 10%), translated into national policies (e.g. by setting specific national targets and adopting national ESL strategies) and periodically monitored (by regular qualitative and quantitative reporting and mutual learning processes) (see Figure 1).

In the article, this normative OMC framework is presented and illustrated with examples of specific results which can be used by many actors dealing with ESL at the EU, national, regional, local and school levels. Their better awareness of all the potential of the OMC could trigger their more active involvement in the OMC process, either via their active participation in the various OMC activities that were presented or by simply considering different guidelines (e.g. Policy recommendations, Toolkit for practitioners) already produced in the OMC framework in order to support policy-makers and practitioners in their efforts to tackle ESL alone or by engaging in various forms of partnership. Their acquaintance can therefore represent a step forward not only towards a more open, participative, accountable, effective and coherent OMC process but also towards more open, participative, accountable, effective and coherent EU and national policies against ESL through which they are framed.


[1Since Switzerland is not formally an EU member state, its involvement in the OMC processes is quite limited. According to different agreements, Switzerland is involved in various comparative studies and is an eligible country to receive financial support from various EU financial initiatives contributing to the development of educational policies and practices at the national level. Due to its constrained role in the OMC processes, practical insights into the reception of EU agendas in Switzerland in this article are very limited.

[2Although ESL has been recognised as one of the priority areas of common EU cooperation since 2002, the article takes into account the second strategic framework of EU cooperation in the field of education (EU 2020 and ET 2020). References to their predecessors (Lisbon Strategy and ET 2010) are established only when needed to clarify some current issues. The reason for that is at least threefold: 1) EU 2020 and ET 2020 build on the achievement of the previous working period (2000–2009); 2) availability of the data from the previous working period is quite limited; and 3) the TITA project addresses the strategic priorities of the second working period (EU 2020 and ET 2020).

[3The Council wanted a strategic framework that would remain flexible enough to respond to new challenges and could therefore be regularly adapted. This is the reason for ET 2020’s 3-year work cycles with Joint Reports (adopted by the Council and the Commission) as a basis for establishing fresh priority areas for the ensuing cycle. An overview shows that ESL has been identified as a priority area in all three already activated cycles 2009–2011, 2012–2014 and 2015–2017. For example, in the current cycle (2015–2017) as a concrete issue in addressing one of the priority areas it is stated “Reducing ESL by supporting school-based strategies with an overall inclusive learner-centred vision of education and ‘second-chance’ and “Supporting initial education and continuing professional development at all levels, especially to deal with /…/ ESL /…/”. Review of the National Report on the implementation of ET 2020 in which member states were asked to point out priority areas which they find necessary to focus EU cooperation in the next working cycle (2015–2017) on reveals that all TITA countries actually conducting the (formally non-obligatory) report (France, Luxembourg, Slovenia) exposed the importance of strengthening EU cooperation on ESL from different angles.

[4Two of the six working groups (Working group on schools; Working group on promoting citizenship and the common values of freedom, tolerance and non-discrimination through education – follow-up to the Paris Declaration) only indirectly indicate ESL as a Relevant Europe 2020 target/ET 2020 benchmark, which their work is related to.

[5Another kind of reports, providing cross-national comparisons and important expert input to the OMC process, are various reports of expert bodies or networks (such as NESSE, 2010; European Parliament, 2011; EENEE, 2013; Eurydice, 2014).

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