Low Learning, School Dropout, and the Exercise of Agency in the Context of Constrained Choices

How does our approach to low learning and dropout change when we assume that young people are, in fact, quite mindful of their future opportunities and aware of what is needed to grasp them?


Image of Deborah Spindelman

Deborah Spindelman

Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre, University of Cambridge

The 2021 SDG progress report estimates that 584 million students in Grades 1 through 9 performed below minimum reading proficiency levels last year, and that 47 percent of students worldwide will drop out before completing secondary school (United Nations, 2021).

Evidence from a recent paper draws on Young Lives data to show that rather than passively dropping out of school, young people frequently exert considerable agency when they make the decision to stay or leave school amidst low learning.

Low learning is often an underlying cause of dropout

Dropping out of school to work or get married may serve as a future-proofing strategy for young people whose academic trajectory limits their options.

A new RISE working paper suggests that low learning underlies, and interacts with, more commonly cited reasons for dropout such as marriage or work. Drawing on Young Lives’ unique longitudinal qualitative dataset from Ethiopia, India, Peru, and Vietnam, as well as recent research elsewhere in Ethiopia, qualitative findings suggest that when learning is limited, the decision to drop out of school might be seen as an exercise in agency and a rational, strategic response amid constrained choices.

Work can interfere with learning, yet children’s work makes school affordable for some families

Young people are frequently aware that trying to balance work and school can lead to low learning, but many families cannot cover school fees and associated costs for all children without their contribution to family incomes. In Ethiopia, Yenealem explains that “(b)y the time I got home from wage work, I would become very tired and I couldn’t study. Had I not gotten involved in this work, I would have been a clever student” (Tafere & Chuta, 2016, p. 17). Elsewhere, she expressed fears that if she did not work “we will starve and I cannot get education materials” (Morrow, Tafere, Chuta, & Zharkevich, p. 6).

While researchers point to the low quality of education provision as a driver of low learning, students may unfairly blame themselves. As Long in Vietnam explains: “I had to go to school in the morning and work in the afternoon: I was so tired when returning home in the evening [...] I could only study for a while, and then I was so sleepy [...] With my learning capacity, I think it was difficult for me to pass the exam, but I wanted to try [...] However, the higher the education, the more expensive it will be. So I decided to stop there” (Morrow & Boyden, 2018, p. 31).

Parents and students worry about the extent to which education can deliver on its promises

Gaining skills and experience in locally available work is seen as a way to hedge their bets while providing necessary household income (Morrow, 2013; Morrow & Vennam 2012). In India, Bhavana’s mother did not complete primary school and pulled her daughter from school before she could finish. Bhavana’s mother explains: “Even if educated and the girl went to school ... it would make no difference and there would be no change in our life. It makes no difference whether educated or not educated ... even if she were to be educated, still it is not possible to get a job; she might still have to work; there are no jobs around. Then what’s the point in getting schooled? No schooling can get her a job. She has to work ... that’s all. We were wise enough [to] let them [her children] drop out of school. We are not sure of any job – anyway there are many jobless here. Who is getting jobs? I haven’t seen a single person from this village getting a job and feeding others” (Singh & Vennam, 2016, p. 21).

When young people realise they are not learning, work and marriage become a more attractive alternative

There is evidence that day-to-day decisions to work are shaped by concerns about educational provision. In Ethiopia, Beletech described leaving school to work when Young Lives researchers visited because no teacher showed up to her classroom that day (Tafere & Pankhurst, 2015). While Beletech’s caretaker wanted her to continue schooling instead of marrying, she decided to elope after losing interest in school following years of low learning, a decision described by researchers as an attractive alternative given her existing burden of domestic and paid work (Winter, 2016).

Qualitative findings across the Young Lives dataset (and beyond) indicate that girls, and sometimes boys, are more likely to elope or have early marriages arranged when low learning has already led them to drop out. This suggests that, like work, marriage may be seen as a risk mitigation strategy among students who have left school with limited literacy or numeracy (Tafere & Chuta, 2016; van der Gaag & Knowles, 2016; Tafere, Abebe, & Assazenew, 2009).

In Ethiopia, Fatuma juggled paid work and household chores alongside school like many girls in the Young Lives study. After learning she had failed her exams, she attended sewing lessons at a local mosque, attended woodworking classes, and started learning computer skills, none of which led to gainful employment. Faced with the prospect of going to the Middle East for work, she instead married and quickly became pregnant (Tafere & Chuta, 2016).

Limited local post-primary options contribute to dropout and marriage in later years

Although Harika was selected for a competitive national scholarship in India at age 13, her family relied on her help in their cotton fields (van der Gaag & Knowles, 2016). This caused her to miss school regularly, earning low marks which limited her post-secondary options to colleges which didn’t offer housing, thus requiring a daily commute (Vennam, Komanduri, & Roest, 2016). Her brother disapproved of this, saying “it is not good for girls to go and come every day in the bus, and whatever education she had is enough” (Singh and Vennam 2016), and Harika was married soon afterward (Vennam, Komanduri, & Roest, 2016).

In Ethiopia, the distance to post-primary schools can also be a burden for boys living in poverty, increasing the appeal of early marriage. A 17-year-old boy explained that “the school [here] teaches only up to 8th grade. One needs to move to the town to attend secondary school... In my case, life has been difficult due to my family’s economic challenges... Managing going to school in those circumstances was difficult for me and I resorted to marriage as a result” (Emirie, Jones, and Kebede 2021, p. 15).

While the overall risk of child marriage is lower for boys in Ethiopia, it can be heightened in contexts where local livelihood opportunities (like khat production) are delinked from formal educational attainment (ibid).

When schools are not safe, girls often exercise their agency to leave school

While marriage and work are often cited as alternative futures for girls who have dropped out of school, their agency is further expressed through the decision to remove themselves from school settings where bullying and verbal abuse inhibit their learning. In India, Shanmuka Priya describes a situation wherein “the girls study well in our village but their minds are full of the threat they see from boys. They are tormented and their spirits are dampened and they suffer a lot. This means they do not have self-confidence and are not able to do well. And this is why they give up their studies and drop out of school” (van der Gaag & Knowles, 2016, p. 62).

In Vietnam, Nga describes her difficulty learning in a classroom where fights regularly erupted between her classmates. “They are spoilt rotten, they always like fighting ... And I was not able to understand lessons so I find it is better to stay at home to assist my mum,” she recalls (Duc & Tam, 2013, p. 17).     

When designing programmes to help adolescents, acknowledge, account for, and leverage their agency in making decisions about their own lives

The young people featured in this blog face not only the risks associated with dropping out of school, but the broader risks inherent in contexts where the decision to drop out and get married, or drop out to work full time, is perceived as one of few opportunities to exert agency in the face of constrained choices (Emirie, Jones, and Kebede 2021).

Nonetheless, these findings caution against presenting flattened or victimising discourses around the drivers of school dropout. Discussions of school dropout often assume that young people fail to understand the opportunities available via education, whereas these findings indicate that young people make rational choices when educational systems fail to meet their learning needs.

In order to effectively combat low learning and dropout, educational programmes need to acknowledge that young people are often quite aware of the future opportunities available given their levels of learning, and make decisions about their future accordingly. The onus is on us to improve quality and make completing a full course of education the more strategic decision.


Duc, L. T., Tam, T. N. M. (2013). Why children in Vietnam drop out of school and what they do after that. Young Lives.

Emirie, G., Jones, N., & Kebede, M. (2021). ‘The School Was Closed, So When They Brought Me A Husband I Couldn’t Say No’: Exploring the Gendered Experiences of Child Marriage Amongst Adolescent Girls and Boys in Ethiopia. The European Journal of Development Research, 1-22.

Morrow, V., & Vennam, U. (2012). Children's responses to risk in agricultural work in Andhra Pradesh, India. Development in practice, 22(4), 549-561.

Morrow, V. (2013) Troubling transitions? Young people's experiences of growing up in poverty in rural Andhra Pradesh, India, Journal of Youth Studies, 16:1, 86-100, DOI: 10.1080/13676261.2012.704986

Morrow, V., Tafere, Y., Chuta, N., & Zharkevich, I. (2017). “I started working because I was hungry”: The consequences of food insecurity for children's well-being in rural Ethiopia. Social Science & Medicine, 182, 1-9.

Morrow, V., Boyden, J. (2018) Responding to children’s work: Evidence from the Young Lives study in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam, Summative Report. Oxford: Young Lives.

Singh R, and Vennam U. (2016). Factors Shaping Trajectories to Child and Early Marriage: Evidence from Young Lives in India. Oxford: Young Lives

Tafere, Y., Abebe, W., & Assazenew, A. (2009). Young Lives Qualitative Research: Round 1-Ethiopia. 

Tafere, Y., & Pankhurst, A. (2015). Can children in Ethiopian communities combine schooling with work?. Oxford: Young Lives.

Tafere, Y., Chuta, N. (2016). Gendered Trajectories of Young People Through School, Work, and Marriage in Ethiopia. Oxford: Young Lives

United Nations. (2021). Sustainable Development Goals Report 2021. 1-68

van der Gaag, N., & Knowles, C. (2016). Towards a better Future? Hopes and fears from Young Lives. Oxford: Young Lives.

Vennam U, Komanduri A, and Roest J. (2016). Gendered Trajectories of Young People Through School, Work, and Marriage in India. Oxford: Young Lives

Winter, F. (2016). “Policy Paper 9: Shaping Aspirations and Outcomes: Gender and Adolescence in Young Lives.” Oxford: Young Lives

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