• Early school leaving;
  • inequalities;
  • disadvantage;
  • instrumentalism

Early school leaving has been identified as a key policy priority across Europe. In this article, we critically discuss the underpinning assumptions and rationale for this policy focus, challenging the association that is made between early school leaving, economic growth and employment. We suggest that ESL is important, not because it is inhibiting growth or that it is responsible for high levels of youth unemployment, but because it helps to sustain and reproduce inequalities. We problematise the utilitarian conceptualisation of education and linear models of educational pathways that are embedded in this policy framework and critically discuss strategies that are proposed to address early school leaving. We argue that the key criteria for assessing such strategies should be the extent to which they meet social equity and social inclusion goals.