10,000 Victorian students are disengaging from education every year. But if we’re willing to listen and be flexible, we can help keep our kids in school, explains Nick Johns.
Every day in Australia, thousands of young people complete their education through so-called “flexible” learning programs. For a variety of reasons other types of schooling (at times, several other types of schooling) have not worked for them. Flexible learning settings are the community’s way of acknowledging that different people have different needs and that we have a responsibility to support all young people to gain an education.
Early in my career, I was fascinated when primary school students were already labelled as the ‘naughty kid’. How they had got to this point so early in life? As my career progressed, I became increasingly interested in kids who end up at the fringes of, and excluded from, our education system.
This fascination soon turned into a research focus. Here’s what I’ve learned from in-depth qualitative interviews with young people accessing education in flexible learning environments, who had previously been marginalised from education.
We need to listen to student voices
The voices of young people are often missing from conversations about education reform. Many students we work with at Melbourne City Mission describe past experiences of “voicelessness” and “powerlessness”.
Amplifying student voice can confronting or challenging for educators. But the evidence suggests it increases attendance and engagement, particularly for young people at risk of early school leaving. When students feel heard they’re more likely to feel “part of the system”, rather than at the mercy of it. It can also be highly valuable for educators—students bring a different perspective that can improve pedagogy.
When students feel cared for, they learn better
My research found a key factor underpinning young people’s success at their flexible learning program was a caring teaching style, where teachers displayed both mastery of curriculum delivery and the ability to care holistically for the student. This was the biggest contrast young people identified when they reflected on current and previous experiences of education.
Approaching students with a caring attitude not only improves a student’s academic learning, but helps them develop the skills to form positive relationships in the classroom and beyond. Getting this right in any type of school setting could arguably make the biggest difference in stopping kids from dropping out.
We need to improve school transitions
Shifting between schools and other learning programs are often difficult for young people and their families. There’s often little information to support the transition and significant gaps between enrolments.
At Melbourne City Mission we’re encouraged that Education State reforms are being designed and implemented to strengthen schools’ capacity to support students who are at risk of early school leaving.
However, flexible learning programs continue to play an important role in providing for young people with high support needs who have fallen through the cracks. Re-engagement programs such as Melbourne City Mission’s ‘Academy’ are not “outside” the mainstream—they are part of the system.
In an environment in which 10,000 Victorian students are disengaging from education annually, it is critical that students and families have the information and support they need to navigate all parts of the education system (including flexible learning programs) seamlessly.
Schools have a responsibility to be better informed about flexible options and their merits in supporting young people in continuing learning.
Flexible learning programs continue to play an important role in providing for young people with high support needs who have fallen through the cracks
Higher needs demand higher funding
Most students at ‘Academy’ have significant barriers to learning, including complex trauma histories and substantial gaps in their education. Despite their history, our students regularly attend class, actively participate and attain qualifications because we acknowledge and address the high support required for them to achieve. Research shows fundamental to this are two aspects of our program: our staffing model (a teacher and youth worker team in each class) and our modest class sizes (capped at 20).
This type of model is high-impact (for every dollar spent, there is a $25 return to society), but it is an expensive model to deliver. Funding for flexible settings needs to reflect the true cost of delivering education in a high-support context.
Good practice needs to be shared
The flexible learning programs represented in the research understood how to enrol motivate and retain young people. Rather than just ‘putting up with’ disengaged or semi-disengaged young people, the flexible learning programs were instrumental in turning around attitudes to learning and moving students towards a positive pathway.
The wider education system has something to learn from these programs – for example, structures that ‘flex’ around the students (including discipline processes such as restorative justice), tailored curriculum and learning, and teaching styles that are democratic, interest-based and hands-on.
Too often, different parts of the education system don’t connect, except when a student moves from one to the other. Further cross-pollination between different parts of the system is necessary if all our young people are to meet their full potential.
This article is based on research and findings from the Melbourne City Mission report Flexible and Alternative Learning: Hearing the Voices of Young People, presented at the 2016 Doing Schools Differently conference.
Nick Johns is Curriculum Manager at Melbourne City Mission.