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European School Education Platform

Education Talks: Pathways to school success

Professor Paul Downes, Director of the Educational Disadvantage Centre, located within Dublin City University’s Institute of Education, recently shared his thoughts on the new European Commission proposal for a Council Recommendation on Pathways to School Success. The document outlines policy measures to address early school leaving and low academic achievement in basic skills.
Interview visual - Paul Downes

I am Professor Paul Downes, Professor of Psychology of Education, and Director of the Educational Disadvantage Centre, at the Institute of Education in Dublin City University.


What are the biggest challenges to improving educational outcomes?

A major concern is the lethal cocktail of poverty and the post-pandemic impact. We see from PISA 2018 already a very concerning deterioration in basic skill scores across reading, maths and science for over one in five students across Europe.


How would you define school success?

It's very much a holistic approach emphasising success as the well-being and social and personal development of our children and young people. Developing social and personal competencies, self-awareness and, of course, at that level, bullying prevention comes into this, because bullying is the antithesis of healthy communication.


Council Recommendation on Pathways to School Success

Certainly, one key layer for the new initiative is a message to member states to integrate early school leaving and bullying prevention strategies. Here there's a range of layers added to the 2011 Council Recommendation.

These include a stronger focus on differentiation of need, to distinguish universal approaches for strategies from targeted group approaches, from individual intensive support. The differentiation angle is a key difference.

There's also a recognition of a whole-school approach, that was not in the 2011 approach, that we need to see schools as systems, systems of relationships, of strategic interventions, as well as, of course, the multidisciplinary teams in and around schools: the cross-sectoral aspect, to bring together key sectors.


How can we support learners?

So, I think some obvious strategies at the prevention level that would need to be firmly embedded and which would have a good evidence base behind them, would be things, for example, such as home-book programmes targeting families in high poverty to ensure there are good reading resources in their homes, to inculcate a love of reading that is central not only to reading proficiency, but of course to all academic attainment.

Regarding the level of intervention, obvious ones would be, for example, the Luxembourg model of having language mediators across, in their example they have about 37 different languages, where they would have mediators for those to address the language issue. Regarding the compensation aspect, I think there are clear lessons in compensatory education, even for the mainstream system.

These include things, such as public recognition of achievements through awards and ceremonies to recognise achievement. This is something that would cost nothing and which could be brought much more into the mainstream system.


How can we support educators?

I think an obvious opportunity here is the whole area of restorative practice, which is a range of fairly simple questioning and communication approaches and it's to be distinguished from restorative justice, which is a very different initiative.

The restorative practice in schools is an inexpensive, simple yet very nuanced and focused way of improving the communicative culture in a school through open questions that help foster empathy and perspective taking, not only in students but also in staff.


What measures can support whole-school approaches?

Whole-school system approaches need to hear the voices of students and parents, but also especially marginalised students and those at risk of exclusion to hear their concerns with the school system. And, of course, the multidisciplinary team dimension then is about recognising that we are broadening our conception of school.

School is not only about teachers and students and pupils. School is also a site where a range of other key professionals can engage with the wider holistic needs supporting our children and young people.


Key elements of Pathways to School Success


  • Prevention/Intervention/ Compensation
  • Whole-school approach
  • Learners' needs
  • Engagement/ Achievement/ Well-being
  • Data collection and monitoring
  • Systemic approaches


Additional information

  • Education type:
    School Education
  • Target audience:
    Government staff / policy maker
    Head Teacher / Principal
    Student Teacher
    Teacher Educator


Policy development
Tackling early school leaving

Key competences

Personal, social and learning to learn
Social and learning