Bluewater District School Board

Bluewater's Early School Leavers page

Early School Leavers

Understanding the Lived
Reality of Student Disengagement from
Secondary School

Final Report

Student Disengagement Image

Prepared by
Community Health Systems Resource Group
The Hospital for Sick Children

For the
Ontario Ministry of Education and Training,
Special Education Branch

Toronto, Canada
May 30, 2005

Summary Prepared by Alana Murray, February 2006.

Early School Leavers: Understanding the Lived Reality of Student Disengagement from Secondary School

Summary of Final Report

Investigative Team/Authors:
Dr. Bruce Ferguson – The Hospital for Sick Children
Dr. Kate Tilleczek - Laurentian University
Dr. Katherine Boydell – The Hospital for Sick Children
Dr. Joanna Anneke Rummens – The Hospital for Sick Children

Advisory Committee:
Grant Clarke, Catherine Sim, Ginette Plourde, Suzanne Séguin, Sylvie Longo, Kate Andrew, Patricia Longlade, Nadia Mazaheri, Florence Guy, Carol Yaworski (deceased), Diane Wagner, Gordon Floyd, Marvin Bernstein, Barry O’Connor, Cynthia Roveda, Céline Cadieux, John Smith, Alana Murray, Catherine Siemieniuk, Ian Adamson, Sharon Wright-Evans.

Brief Overview

  • The Ontario Ministry of Education is committed to further understanding and addressing the issues associated with young people who are presently leaving the secondary school system prior to earning their diploma. These early school leavers represent a unique challenge to which the Ministry has responded, in part, by contracting with the Hospital for Sick Children, which is leading a consortium of investigators (including those at Laurentian University in Sudbury) to undertake a series of research studies regarding early school leavers in Ontario.

  • This report details the findings of a qualitative study designed to understand the processes of disengagement from school, and of early school leaving, from the point of view of 193 young people in Ontario who have themselves left school or are at risk of doing do. It also provides data on the process from the perspectives of groups of parents/guardians of early leavers, and of Ontario educators. This data fills a gap in the research and policy literature on the process as told from these unique perspectives.

  •  The research project has involved three interconnected strategies:
    a) Comprehensive literature reviews
    b) Socio-demographic data analyses (reported under a separate cover)
    c) An in-depth qualitative study.

  • Early school leaving is the result of a long process of disengagement and alienation that may be preceded by less severe types of withdrawal such as truancy and course failures. Understanding this process will provide the Ministry of Education with multiple junctures in which to intervene.

  • Disengagement can best be defined in the following terms:

    • A process and/or pathway (often non-linear) toward adult status
    • Inter-relational rather than individual
    • Contingent on promises (kept or broken) between people
    • Multi-dimensional across micro, meso and macro levels . A complex, often emotional, decision to leave school
  • Three separate pathways to disengagement were found suggesting that early leavers who could be “starting from scratch” ‘mostly protected” or “in-between” in terms of the numbers of risk or protective factors they encounter.

  • The voices of Aboriginal, Francophone, newcomer, second generation immigrant and refugee, third plus generation, visible minority, lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgendered and rural youth were heard. Shared risk factors across groups included low socio-economic status, the need to take on adult roles while in school, “place” and culture, risk-taking activities, issues with attendance and school failure, negative relations with school personnel; flawed school cultures; and issues with passive or irrelevant curriculum.

  • Protective factors also existed at the school and community levels. These included alternative schools, caring and supportive teachers, and school climates which were caring, flexible, and proactive. Families and self determination also played a major protective role for these young people.

  • Risk and protective factors were found to be paradoxical for many youth, with both appearing simultaneously. Many of these young people also experienced multiple risk factors along their pathways to disengagement.

  • Four categories of recommended strategies for policy and practice are offered which could most usefully be adapted for the Student Success Plan to inform the work of the Student Success “rescue teams” and the Learning Opportunities Grants in working with disengaged youth and sorted into strategic foci labelled “Curriculum and Structure,” “Pedagogy” and “School Culture.”


It is well documented that one of the most critical issues facing the educational system in North America and elsewhere is the problem of early school leavers1.
(1 No universally accepted definition of dropout/early school leaver exists. Leavers are typically defined as students who leave school (not including transfers) before they graduate from high school with a regular diploma. Some students leave school before entering ninth grade, but most withdraw during their high school years.)

  • In Canada, it is currently estimated that 12 percent of students do not finish secondary school (Bushnik, Barr-Telford & Bussiere, 2004).
  • In Ontario, a recent cohort study suggests that the last four years show substantially decreased secondary school graduation rates, such that up to one-quarter of students may not graduate (King, 2004).
  • In 2001, 18.4% of Canadian men and women between the ages of 20-24 years did not have a high school degree, certificate or diploma.
  • The rate of early school leaving in Canada varies considerably among provinces and territories, with Nunavut having the highest rate at 67.4%.
  • Across the provinces, the highest percentage of early school leavers is in Manitoba (26.9%).
  • In contrast, Ontario has the lowest rate with 15.9% of youth ages 20-24 years not completing high school in 2001 (Statistics Canada, March 2003).
  • A large proportion of Canadian youth who leave school early do so at an early age and thus at low levels of education.
  • Approximately one third of early school leavers drop out with Grade 9 education or less and almost two thirds drop out with Grade 10 or less.
  • Four in ten early leavers have left school by the age of 16 (HRDC, 2000).
  • The literature in this area suggests that early school leaving is a long term, multi-dimensional process that is influenced by a wide variety of school and out-of-school experiences with broad social and cultural implications (Foster, Tilleczek, Hein & Lewko, 1993).
  • These implications include both costs and consequences which are becoming increasingly serious for individuals and society (Rumberger, 2001).
  • Students who leave school prematurely are more likely to be unemployed and to earn less over their working life.
  • Trends toward a higher skilled labour force will make it even harder for such youth economically.
  • Although many early leavers pursue a GED certification, they are not adequately prepared for attaining well-paying employment or for accessing higher education.
  • In addition, leavers tend to experience higher levels of early pregnancy and substance abuse, and are likely to require social services of various types (Woods, 1995).

This report addresses the following four questions:
1) Why do young people leave secondary school before graduation?
2) Which factors help to ensure that they stay in school or return to complete their diploma?
3) Do these risk and protective factors vary in nature and/or relative importance across different populations of young people?
4) What are the implications of the research for policy and practice?

Contact Information:

Alana J. Murray
Superintendent of Secondary Education
Bluewater District School Board
351 1st Ave. N, Box 190
Chesley, Ontario N0G 1L0
(519) 363-2014, Ext. 276
e-mail: [email protected]

To view and/or print the full report click here.

Bluewater District School Board is located on the traditional land of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation, which is represented by the communities of Saugeen First Nation and Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation.
Website by SchoolMessenger Presence. © 2023 Intrado Corporation. All rights reserved.