What can we learn from second-chance education programmes for adults to prevent ESL in younger generations?

Thursday 23 July 2015, by Klaudija Šterman Ivančič

A review of second-chance education programmes and practices indicates that mainstream education could help prevent ESL by implementing its main principles: a student-centred approach to learning, encouragement of a supportive school environment and relationships, socio-emotional support, use of interactive teaching methods and connectedness to different community agents.

The aim of this article is to present the main practices and principles of second-chance education programmes and discuss their implications for mainstream education in order to prevent ESL. Second-chance education programmes are organised as part of non-formal education in different countries and aim to enrol students who are at risk or have already left education early. They operate on the principles of lifelong learning, adult education and socially just education. This means that, besides offering students academic support and another chance to attain certain knowledge and an educational certificate, second-chance education programmes also address ESLrs’ educational, personal, social and cultural characteristics. Second-chance education programmes are currently widely present mainly in the U.S.A., Australia and European countries. In our review of different second-chance education practices and project reports (Boronia second-chance school from Australia, Eumoschool from Italy, EU national reports from second-chance education in Greece, Austria, Italy and Romania, LION implemented in Italy, PROSA implemented in Austria, U.S. Big Picture Learning School, U.S. Opportunity House and Youth Chance High School etc.), we identified the following common principles: all programmes are based on a student-centred approach to teaching and learning, they put an emphasis on supportive relationships and a supportive environment, the socio-emotional development of participants is important, all use interactive teaching methods, and all of them are closely connected to the wider community. The extensive review by the European Commission (2013) supports our findings and concludes that, by including second-chance education programmes and its principles in formal educational content, this would more effectively serve as ESL prevention and compensation (e.g. Bloom, 2010; Ross & Gray, 2005; Spierings, 2003).


In 1995, the European Commission issued the White Paper on Education and Training (Teaching and Learning: Towards the Learning Society), with the aim to fight social exclusion in Europe (Efstathiou, 2009). Another important part of this strategy was the implementation of second-chance education programmes into educational schemata in order to address the issue of ESLrs as a group of socially excluded individuals. When the second-chance school scheme began in the EU context, second-chance education programmes were reflecting the belief of many experts and policy-makers that ESLrs should not be brought back to ’the place of failure’ and that one should think more in terms of job creation, vocational training and social care when attempting to help this target group.

Second-chance education programmes were, as a strategic approach involving schools, wider community agents and employers, further elaborated in 2006 and 2007 through the European Parliament’s Lifelong Learning Action Programme and the European Commission’s Action Plan on Adult Learning. These programmes provided the statutory and fiscal support to institutions participating in fighting against ESLrs’ segregation by offering them the opportunity to re-engage in education (European Commission, 2001; European Council, 2003; European Parliament, 2006; University of Florence, 2010).

Second-chance education is based on the idea that, through an accessible, non-selective, effective and organised educational structure, an individual can actualise an educational opportunity they missed or failed when enrolled in mainstream education for the first time (European Commission, 2001; Inbar & Sever, 1989; Shavit, Ayalon, & Kurleander, 2001).

Second-chance education programmes are today widespread in different countries around the world, but are most systematically researched and reported in Europe, the U.S.A. and Australia. They are referred to in various ways (e.g. flexible learning centres, second-chance schools, alternative schools, second-chance community, youth coaching programmes, evening schools, transfer schools etc.) and enrol different target groups. They can enrol students who are still involved in mainstream education but are at risk of not attaining any qualifications [1] from the secondary education level (lower or upper), young people above the age of 15 not currently in education, employment or training, as well as individuals regardless of age, those already employed and who require special educational support in order to achieve a certain education level. As such, second-chance education programmes can entail ESL prevention and compensation for educational qualifications, from basic education to higher secondary education, up to continuing tertiary education (opening up cross-over points between the secondary and tertiary sectors). However, all of them aim to include individuals who are disadvantaged from an educational point of view, in labour market terms, socially and also culturally, and promote education as a means to keep or reintegrate individuals into the education and training system (Bills, Cook, & Giles, 2015; Bloom, 2010; Efstathiou, 2009; Lagana-Riordan et al., 2011; McGregora, Mills, Riele, & Hayes, 2015; ROBIN project, 2016).

In its report on implementation of the Second Chance Education Pilot Project, the European Commission (2001) concluded that 94% of investigated ESLrs from 11 European countries could be rescued in a second-chance education scheme. This means that ESLrs are not necessarily lost to the education system in the first place. Accordingly, another important question emerges: could the approach to education used in second-chance education prevent ESL already during the ’first chance’ (European Commission, 2001)?

In the following article, we examine different second-chance education practices and project reports in order to: define the main principles of second-chance education programmes and, most importantly, present aspects of second-chance education programmes that could benefit mainstream education in order to prevent ESL already in the early years.


Since the literature on second-chance education programmes in connection to ESL is wide and versatile, in addressing the topic we first conducted a search for policy frameworks and definitions, followed by a review of project reports carried out on the international (e.g. reports of the European Commission and European Council) and national levels. For a better review, we classified the projects according to region (European and non-European projects), target group and aims. Since the project reports are usually widely accessible, we first searched for the results online, followed by a search of the scientific EBSCOhost online research databases (Academic Search Complete, ERIC, PsycARTICLES, PsycBOOKS, PsycINFO, and SocINDEX with full-text databases). The main keywords initially used in both cases were: second-chance education, second-chance education projects, second-chance education approach to ESL, second-chance education principles and second-chance programmes and ESL prevention/compensation. We also examined references cited in the project reports and the described implemental practices in different countries, and reviewed articles. Texts taken into account had to address second-chance education implementation, lessons learned from implementations, second-chance practices, principles, the use of those principles in mainstream education, and the use of second-chance approaches in preventing ESL.

Principles of second-chance education programmes

Cartier and associates (Cartier, Langevin, & Robert, 2011) found that about 71% of American students who drop out of school admit they wish to return. Research also indicates that many students who drop out of high school are academically capable of finishing high school if given the right type of educational choices (Franklin & Streeter, 1992, 1995; Franklin et al., 2007). Second-chance education programmes are designed in a way to offer such a choice.

As mentioned in the introduction, second-chance education programmes can enrol different age groups of individuals and can vary according to the content. Their main purpose is to offer a second chance to attain educational qualifications to educationally, socially and culturally disadvantaged individuals who are at risk or have already left mainstream education for various reasons. In this section, we present the main principles of second-chance education programmes we identified in our review of second-chance education project reports, summaries, meta-analyses and case studies (e.g. Black, Polidano, & Tseng, 2012; Efstathiou, 2009; European Commission, 2001, 2013; McFadden, 1996; McGregora et al., 2015; ROBIN project, 2016; Ross & Gray, 2005): the student-centred approach to learning, the socio-emotional development of participants, supportive teacher-student relationships, a supportive learning environment, interactive teaching methods, and cooperation with the local environment. As evident from main descriptions in the next section, at some points it is hard to describe a given principle as completely separate from other principles. Since they together form a process, i.e. a specific approach to teaching and learning, and since they are mutually and tightly connected, at times their descriptions overlap.

Student-centred approach to learning

The main aspect that distinguishes most second-chance education programmes from mainstream education is their approach to teaching and learning that is based on student-centred adult education approaches. This means that, when designing the curriculum, programmes are sensitive to social and cultural issues, individuals’ interests, aspirations and differences, and they recognise the capacity of students to engage in decisions about their own learning and the capacity to be internally motivated for learning. As such, the student-centred approach enables students to mediate previous negative educational experiences and in this way they construct a positive self-image as a learner. An example from Australia’s Boronia second-chance school (McGregora et al., 2015) shows that for teachers the biggest challenge of the student-centred approach is maintaining ESLrs’ motivation for learning. There are days when students are amotivated for learning and on such days support from teachers is of great importance. But it pays off in the end since they gain quality knowledge when they themselves decide to learn and work on things. Teachers also report that good practices for ESLrs’ motivation within the student-centred approach are: making the content authentic, organising activities based on students’ interests, and drawing on real-life situations.

Socio-emotional development of participants

During the last decade, second-chance education programmes have also clearly defined social and emotional skill development as an important prerequisite for the cognitive and professional development of the learners. This means that ESLrs are expected to develop beyond academic performance and achievements, i.e. they are expected to develop personally and socially (e.g. development of determination, adaptability, helpfulness, affective maturity, self-confidence, self-knowledge, inventiveness, resourcefulness, creativity, imagination, sociability and openness). As such, second-chance education programmes address the needs of students that are not met to such an extent in regular schools (European Commission, 2007; European Council, 2003; European Parliament, 2006; Franklin et al., 2007). Some good practices and projects based on fighting ESL through emotional learning (e.g. the Youth + programme in Europe and Australia, Eumoschool – Emotional education for early school leaving prevention in Italy) (Eumoschool, 2016; European Commission, 2013) show that in this way students develop into active citizens who are aware of the importance of their active participation in society and are able to understand themselves and their surroundings. To achieve that, teachers in those programmes report that they themselves need to take students’ views seriously and also negotiate their own views with them on a daily basis in order to find a compromise and support them in developing more adaptable world-views.

Supportive role of teachers

Teachers that have a relevant qualification (e.g. teachers’ subject knowledge, knowledge of conflict mediation, self-evaluation and the implementation of different teaching methodologies), teaching experience and possess a deeper, personal commitment to the success of students, empathy and compassion, are the key to the success of second-chance education programmes. In such a setting, teachers offer students an adult treatment and build on closer and more supportive student-teacher relationships. Teachers from second-chance education programmes in the U.S.A. and Italy (e.g. alternative schools in the U.S.A., Second-chance schools in Italy) (European Commission, 2013; US State University, 2016) reported the prime advantage of such programmes lies in the flexibility of their own time, which enables them to form close relationships with ESLrs and their families. This is especially important at the beginning of the educational process when they set the learning goals and plans together. In this way, this process can be personalised and forms the basis of an individualised learning plan. Teachers also support their students in setting reasonable and adaptive rules and regulations that consider a student’s availability and other obligations. Riele (2000) concludes that such an approach enables alienated and disadvantaged students to be educated in more constructive ways.

A supportive learning environment

One of the important aims of many second-chance education programmes (e.g. U.S. Big Picture Learning School, U.S. alternative schools) is to create a suitable and flexible learning environment where, instead of discipline or correction, the environment is caring and emphasises learners’ strengths (McGregora et al., 2015; Mills & McGregor 2014). Different studies (e.g. Franklin et al., 2007; Saunders, Jones, Bowman, Loveder, & Brooks 2003; Wang, Haertel, & Walberg, 1997; Wyn, Stokes, & Tyler, 2004) confirm that in such learning environments there are fewer incidents of violence, higher attendance levels, lower dropout rates, increased participation in extracurricular activities, meaningful relationships with peers and staff, and students’ greater sense of belonging. Students from the Big Picture Learning second-chance school in the U.S. reported that when behavior problems occur the teachers negotiate with them honestly and also firmly. If students are not ready to participate, they are not penalised but are asked to take time off and come back when they feel ready to start afresh. Students reported that in this way they feel the teachers never give up on them. ESLrs who attend second-chance education often come from socially disadvantaged environments. Teachers from the U.S. alternative schools report that when entering second-chance education ESLrs often need to be taken care of (e.g. warm drink, some food, understanding interaction etc.) before making an educational plan. They thereby feel like persons in the process, which motivates them for future participation (Big Picture Learning, 2016; US State University, 2016).

Interactive teaching methods

Given that the aim of second-chance education programmes is the participants’ active involvement and engagement in the educational process, the use of interactive teaching methods is inevitable. Teachers in second-chance education programmes from different EU countries (Greece, Austria and Italy) (European Commission, 2016; Frame, 2002; Hansen, 2006; Harrison, Price, Gavin, & Florey, 2002; Koutrouba & Karageorgou, 2013; Wurdinger & Enloe, 2011) reported that the methods used depend on the competencies the programme aims to develop. In those countries, second-chance education aims to build general competencies as well as media skills, conflict resolution, self-research study confidence, and support for self-evaluation. They report that the most efficient teaching methods that are often used are: the creation of individual portfolios, project learning, learning in groups, partner work, individual self-learning phases, practice-oriented learning formats and exemplary learning. Another approach to teaching and learning that has proved to be effective when working with ESLrs in second-chance education is the MGS (Movement, Games and Sport for psychosocial development) approach. Teachers in second-chance education programmes from Romania (European Commission, 2013) reported that the training, which is very practical and based on the experiential learning method of games as a psychosocial tool, simultaneously develops the mind, body and soul, promotes teamwork, builds self-confidence, encourages the expression of emotions, and stimulates creativity. Competition and exclusion is excluded from the methodology, and promotes cooperation and inclusion through sports, games and creative activities. It is also important to note that teachers from Greece, Austria, Italy and Romania stated that, in order to effectively implement interactive teaching methods, it is essential for them to be regularly trained in professional skills such as teamwork, supervision, reflection, feedback and self-evaluation.

Cooperation with the local environment

In our review, another important aspect of second-chance education programmes proved to be their local partnership with a large variety of partners, including mainstream schools. Practices from the U.S. alternative schools (e.g. Opportunity House, 2010; Youth Chance High School, 2016) show it is very important for ESLrs’ motivation and social integration to give them the opportunity to go to mainstream schools and take a class they prefer. If that works for them, they can stay and, if not, they return and take the class in an alternative setting. Recently, there have been several European Commission projects (e.g. PROSA in Austria, LION 28 in Italy) (ROBIN project, 2016) that specifically aimed to connect second-chance education programmes with social work institutions, community work, housing corporations, municipalities, educational institutions and businesses and welfare institutions. Project reports (Opportunity House, 2010; ROBIN project, 2016; Youth Chance High School, 2016) confirm that effective practices supported different opportunities for young people (e.g. deliberately-focused placements at potential employers, cultural activities, targeted learning support, remedial education groups, individual tuition, student-student guidance etc.) and also teachers (mobility experiences for trainers, tools and training for teachers etc.). Such cooperation of second-chance education programmes with the environment is vital because students who are enrolled in second-chance education programmes often need support and advice from different experts (European Commission, 2001).

In the case of fighting ESL, the role of employers is also pivotal since they show young people that a job requires skills, including basic skills. By offering work experience, employers assist youth in acquiring qualifications in demand on the labour market and also enable youngsters to set clear expectations and goals for the future (Kollas & Halkia, 2014; Lange & Sletten, 1995).

Implications for mainstream education

Different authors (e.g. Black et al., 2012; Hill & Jepsen, 2007) state that, despite many good studies of practices, little systematic research and evidence examines the engagement of ESLrs in second-chance education programmes on the national level. In their studies, they confirmed that the time of an individual’s re-engagement with study is an important point when considering ESL. For youth, the rates of re-engagement were strongly falling during the period since they left school, with the highest rates of re-engagement being in the first year out, after which they dropped dramatically up until year 4. Such findings point to the importance of the early re-engagement of ESLrs in education and therefore the availability of second-chance education programmes that enable and encourage such inclusion. Further, it is important to encourage the integration of second-chance education principles already in mainstream education in order to prevent ESL.

In our review of the practices of second-chance education programmes and projects (e.g. Boronia second-chance school from Australia, Eumoschool from Italy, EU national reports form second-chance education in Greece, Austria, Italy and Romania, LION 28 from Italy, PROSA from Austria, U.S. Big Picture Learning School, U.S. Opportunity House and Youth Chance High School etc.), we identified that the common main approaches to teaching and learning which distinguish them from mainstream education derive from their student-centred approach to learning, socio-emotional support of students during the process, the creating of supportive teacher-student relationships and a supportive learning environment, the use of interactive teaching methods and connection to wider community experts and organisations. Our findings are in line with one of the most systematic and extensive reviews of second-chance education in European countries (European Commission, 2013) whose aim was to shape second-chance education-based directions for teachers in mainstream education so as to help prevent ESL already in the early stages. Their practical implications for preventing ESL in mainstream schools are specific (see Figure 1) and encompass a multiprofessional approach to at-risk students (e.g. early career guidance and work experience, health and emotional support, involvement of social care institutions and cultural organisations), an inclusive school climate (e.g. student involvement in making decisions, small class sizes, development of positive relationships with their peers, teachers and staff), flexible curricula (e.g. focusing on learners’ strengths, empowering to take ownership of personal learning, providing opportunities for work experience, introducing arts and sports), stimulating learning environments (e.g. a safe and stimulating environment, opportunities to socialise, flexibility in organising the day), personalised learning (e.g. individual attention, availability of a counsellors), social and emotional support (e.g. acknowledgement of the complex personal situations of at-risk students), and adaptable assessment and progression (e.g. different objectives – recognition of achievements related to personal development, motivation, engagement, and integration into employment). The European Commission (2013) concludes that, as such, second-chance education programmes provide a good example of how to build confidence and motivation in mainstream education for learners at the highest end of the ESL ‘risk’ spectrum and therefore serve as effective ESL prevention.

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Figure 2. Implications for mainstream education in order to prevent ESL in early stages


According to our review of second-chance education practices, we may conclude that there are two primary forms of second-chance education programme implementation: Their principles can be implemented within mainstream education and thus serve at-risk students or can be implemented as part of a flexible, non-linear education system and address students who have already left mainstream education. Although there is much space for further systematic research, especially in the area of implementing second-chance education practices in mainstream education, so far the existing research results (e.g. Bills et al., 2015; Black et al., 2012; Efstathiou, 2009; European Commission, 2001, 2013; Hill & Jepsen, 2007; Lagana-Riordan et al., 2011; Polidano et al., 2015) show that it is a practice worth developing, particularly when it comes to implementing preventive strategies for reducing ESL rates and strategies for the re-engagement of ESL students.

Different authors (e.g. Bloom, 2010; Riele, 2000; Ross & Gray, 2005; Smyth & Hattam 2004, Spierings, 2003; Wyn et al., 2004) also point to the fact that, in order for second-chance programmes and the implementation of their principles in mainstream education to become successful and efficient, fiscal- and system-level changes are needed. They state that educational systems should allow students to leave education and return at a later stage. Linear educational models and EU educational benchmarks suggest that young people should at least complete secondary education. However, for a substantial minority of students who are alienated from school this is counterproductive. Retention may therefore be increased by providing flexible structures that allow young people to leave education and come back at a later stage. The traditional, uni-dimensional models based on age or the school-to-work transition are inadequate because they fail to capture the complexities of youth transitions in the post-modern era. It is therefore necessary to develop multiple educational pathways for youth. Some ESLrs have the interest and capacity to move into postsecondary programmes, others would do better in occupationally oriented programmes and would benefit from early working experience and contact with employers, and still others need special approaches tailored to young people with very low levels of basic skills. Such a flexible approach would also decrease the funding problems of second-chance education programmes, another problematic area of second education programmes identified by the European Commission (2001, 2013). By integrating the principles of second-chance education into mainstream education and thereby lowering ESL levels, second-chance education would not be required to such an extent and national education systems would then benefit from lower extra costs. Integration of the second-chance education principle into mainstream education could therefore yield many positive effects not only for potential ESLrs (academic development and personal growth), and teachers (professional growth), but also schools and the community as a whole (better social cohesion and lower costs).


[1In this type of second-chance education programmes, students are simultaneously involved in mainstream education and second-chance education. Second-chance education can be offered within or outside mainstream school facilities and provides more flexible ways of delivering mainstream courses. As such, second-chance education programmes are part, not only of an ESL compensation, but also an ESL prevention strategy.

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