By Georgina MacDougall
BRUSSELS, April 11 (Reuters) - Fewer young Europeans are leaving school early but the rate remains high in Spain, Portugal and across southern Europe, with boys far more likely than girls to cut short their studies, figures released on Thursday showed.
Research by Eurostat, the European Union's statistics agency, showed 12.8 percent of young people dropped out of secondary-school education in 2012, down from 13.5 percent in 2011. But there were large divergences across countries.
The Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia all had drop-out rates of less than 6 percent - far below the EU average - while Spain recorded a rate of 25 percent, Portugal 21 percent, Malta 23 percent and Italy 18 percent.
The figures are important because leaving school early often has a socio-economic impact, with leavers more likely to be unemployed, to use drugs and alcohol and to develop mental and physical health problems later in life, researchers say.
In an effort to combat the problem, the EU is aiming to reduce the rate of young people leaving school early to below 10 percent by 2020.
Androulla Vassiliou, the European commissioner for education and youth, said Thursday's figures were encouraging in as much that the headline average had fallen. But she acknowledged more needed to be done.
"The jobs of the future will demand higher qualifications and these figures show that more young people are determined to achieve their full potential," she said.
One particular concern is the high number of young men dropping out of school early. Eurostat said the average rate of boys dropping out was 24 percent high than for girls.
Cyprus has the biggest gender discrepancy, with 42 girls dropping out of school early for every 100 boys. At the other end of the spectrum is Bulgaria, where more girls drop out early than boys - 107 for every 100 boys.
At a time when Europe is tackling a deep-rooted economic crisis that will, in the long-run, only be resolved through higher growth and a more productive workforce, keeping young people in school to improve education has become a priority.
That extends to tertiary education, with the EU aiming to reach a level of 40 percent of 30-34 year olds having received a college or university education by 2020.
That target is already being achieved in countries such as Finland, Ireland, Lithuania and Luxembourg. But elsewhere, many states are falling short, including Romania, Portugal, Bulgaria and Austria.
For more information, please see: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-13-324_en.htm (Editing by Luke Baker)