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Keeping kids in school

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GBYACVic

The reasons kids become disengaged from school are often complex, and having the right supports in place is crucial to preventing it, Dr Jessie Mitchell from YacVIC explains.

When we hear about students being excluded from school, most of us tend to imagine a very small number of ‘bad kids’ who get expelled for seriously violent or criminal behaviour. But when my organisation began to look into the topic of school exclusion, we discovered the full extent of the problem was rather different.

Once we announced we would be advocating on this topic, the phone calls and messages began pouring in – from teachers struggling to help deeply troubled students, from youth workers supporting young people who could not return to a ‘mainstream’ school, and from parents distraught at seeing their children being shut out of their education, often for behaviours stemming from trauma or unsupported disability. Their opinions and experiences were different, but they all seemed to agree on two things: that the problem is far more complicated than a few ‘bad kids’ needing discipline, and that the current system needs to change.

In many ways, the Victorian community is more committed to educating our young people than ever before. Young Victorians are more likely to finish Year 12 than their peers in other parts of Australia, and our state government has made the bold pledge to transform Victoria into the ‘Education State’. Some great initiatives have been funded to discourage students from dropping out of school, and to make sure young Victorians can get a good education no matter where they live.

However, more work remains to be done, and the exclusion of students from school must be recognised as a particular problem.

For one thing, it doesn’t usually work very well. Excluding a student may give the school community some relief, but it rarely ‘fixes’ problematic behaviour. Young people who have been excluded repeatedly from school often have serious problems such as mental illness, family violence, chaotic home lives or drug use – and these things tend to get worse if the student is kept away from their education and from the positive influences of a school community.

PQSchool2For another thing, school exclusion tends to mirror and reinforce bigger patterns of disadvantage and discrimination. Students with disabilities, Aboriginal students, students in out-of-home care, and students who live in suburbs with high rates of disadvantage are much more likely than their peers to be shut out of school.

And people don’t always realise that expulsion is only the tip of the iceberg. Formal expulsion is a detailed process with options for appeal, and it’s relatively rare. But informal exclusion arguably poses a much bigger, hidden problem.

Some students are out of school because they’ve been sent home informally, or placed on reduced hours, or told that they should leave the school ‘so you don’t have an expulsion on your record’. Some young people stop attending school after being suspended or sent out of class many times, and some believe they’ve been ‘kicked out’ even when that’s not the case. Some families cannot find an accessible school which will agree to enrol their child.

Most worryingly of all, there is a strong link between school exclusion and criminal behaviours. A 2014 survey of 165 young people on remand and in sentenced detention in Victoria found that 58 per cent of them had been suspended or expelled from school. Large Australian and American studies from 2009-2010 found that being suspended significantly increased a young person’s chances of anti-social behaviour and violence. And a recent study of 103 young Victorians who passed through the Melbourne Children’s Court found that a shocking 84 per cent of them had not attended a single day’s school in the past month.

The good news is that there is a strong appetite for positive change in the Victorian Government, schools and the wider community. YACVic believes there are several key steps that could be taken to lower the rate of exclusion, strengthen school communities, and improve young people’s engagement with learning.

Firstly, schools need adequate supports in place to work with students experiencing trauma and mental health problems, and students with disabilities. This means adequate access to wellbeing staff, psychologists, counsellors, and high quality disability support. More expert assistance is also needed for teachers and other staff to develop trauma-informed practice, youth mental health ‘first aid’, and a respectful, human rights based practice to teaching students with disabilities.

Meanwhile, students facing exclusion often need specialist help to reconnect with education. Some students and their families don’t know whether or not they’re allowed to return to school, or what their other options for education may be. Negotiating with principals, other school staff, the Department of Education and vocational training providers can be a complicated business. And returning to education can be especially hard if the student needs ongoing support with issues like learning difficulties or mental illness.

Families in this situation may need the help of an expert, independent support person who can clarify the student’s enrolment status, sit down with them and their families to identify their future options, and work closely with schools, alternative learning providers, TAFEs and community services. In some communities this role is played by the Victorian Government’s new Navigator program, but equivalent support is needed statewide.

Adequate support is also needed for best-practice flexible learning programs, including within mainstream schools, for students who need an alternative to the traditional classroom. These programs should not be ‘dumping grounds’; they should operate within a strong quality assurance framework and be based on evidence about what works in helping students to re-engage with learning.

Underpinning all of this must be a basic recognition that education of young people is a basic human right and, when delivered well, a pathway out of disadvantage and marginalisation.

YACVic’s research paper on this topic is available here.

YACVic is the peak body and leading policy advocate on young people’s issues in Victoria. Our vision is that Young Victorians have their rights upheld and are valued as active participants in their communities. http://www.yacvic.org.au/

Banner Image: Flickr/CC/Bryan Alexander