Re-engaging young people with education and training

What are the alternatives?

by Kimberley Wilson, Kellie Stemp & Sue McGinty

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Alternative education programs are one way of responding to the disengagement of young people from mainstream schools. While there are a great variety of programs, those where young people experience success have incorporated a number of elements of best practice (Mills & McGregor 2010). This article reviews the attributes of effective alternative programs, with a particular focus on programs situated in Queensland, Australia. Establishing what constitutes a successful alternative program becomes increasingly important in an education climate that includes rapid movement toward a standardised educational experience with the attendant potential to further alienate those young people already existing on the margins of mainstream schooling.

Engagement in schooling is a key factor in producing equitable social and employment outcomes for all young people. School retention is an issue of growing concern highlighted in international social inclusion agendas and prioritised at national and state levels through educational reform policies targeted at the senior phase of learning. In 2009, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) responded to disturbingly low rates of Year 12 completion by mandating young people’s participation in schooling until completion of Year 10, with a further requirement of remaining in full-time education, training or employment until the age of 17 (COAG 2009). Substantial funding has been allocated to support the implementation of these school retention reforms, yet a significant proportion of young people continue to disengage prior to achieving their Senior Certificate or equivalent.

In 2009, 16% of teenagers (15- to 19-year-olds) nationally were identified as not being fully engaged in work or study. This was a sharp increase from 2008, and reversed a previously downward trend. This rise has been attributed to a downturn in the labour market and the absence of an offsetting increase in education participation. Early school leavers who do not continue in education are disadvantaged in the labour market and are less likely to be in full-time work and more likely to be unemployed or not in the labour market (Robinson & Lamb 2009). According to the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR 2010), 80% of available jobs in Australia require post-school qualifications, yet only 50% of the workforce has such qualifications.

In discussing school retention, it must be noted that there are concerns in relation to the accurate identification of early school leavers. There is limited data available to track young people who have disengaged from school prior to the age of 15. They comprise a significant cohort generally not reflected in studies focused on measuring senior school retention. Younger students may fall between the cracks, if they experience long absences through suspension and/or school exclusion, which create ripe grounds for complete disengagement. Another shortcoming of school retention studies is the focus on retention from one year to the next, which also omits those highly mobile students who might cease enrolment at one school yet fail to re-enrol at another school or experience an extended period of absence before re-enrolment.

Factors related to youth disengagement

It is common to find in any discussion centred on youth disengagement a list of individual factors that predispose a person to being “at risk” of early school leaving. Curtis and McMillan (2008, p.8) identify “not having an intention to complete school, coming from a non-nuclear family, being a below average academic achiever, being male, having an unfavourable attitude towards school and perceiving student– teacher relations as unsympathetic” as personal attributes associated with a greater likelihood of non-completion of school. Low-skilled parental occupation and parental non-completion of post-secondary education and training are also considered to be contributing factors.

A more detailed exploration of school-based factors related to student disengagement is provided by Lange and Sletten (2002) who highlight three influential factors that impact upon engagement in the school context – academics, relationships with teachers and peers, and school size. The academic aspect takes into consideration suspensions, missed classes and academic failures that leave some students “weary of the school experience and distrustful that the education system can be a tool for their success” (Lange & Sletten 2002, p.11). The relationship dynamic in the school setting is related to the strength of students’ connections to their peers and adults as well as to the overall school climate, which has a significant impact on the academic investment of at-risk students. School size as a factor is linked to research that consistently demonstrates that large school size is an important dimension contributing to student alienation from the traditional schooling system (Lange & Sletten 2002).

A number of authors (see, for example, Smyth 2002; Croninger & Lee 2001) find a middle ground between the concepts of student/family contextual risk factors and school inadequacy in putting forward the idea that students who experience complex life experiences may be further disadvantaged by a lack of “school” capital. Some young people struggle to connect with the culture of the traditional school and therefore require an empathetic and supportive school response to ensure both academic success and social wellbeing (Mills & McGregor 2010). It is suggested that schools could mitigate disengagement risk factors by transforming relationships for learning so that they are inclusive of students’ families and communities and, as such, holistically support and enable young people to build social capital (Leadbeater 2008). However, this is not the typical education experience for many young people, with the result that many disengage from education completely and do not have the resources required to fully participate within their community.

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