Those Who Disappear: The Australian education problem nobody wants to talk about

By Dr Jim Watterston and Megan O'Connell

This report focuses on the young people across Australia of compulsory school age who, for multiple reasons, are not participating in a school or an education program of any type. They are not absent from school: they simply aren’t in one. Young people of all ages have been able to detach themselves from formal education and we don’t know who they are, where they are, how this has happened and why they remain largely hidden.

These are not the young people who are distracted or disengaged from learning nor those school refusers who are known to be attending school irregularly. These detached young people are of compulsory school age and are no longer enrolled in a formal education program of any type.

Unfortunately, education departments and governments nearly always use the term disengaged as a catch-all for those students who are challenged by their school experience while not explicitly identifying that many thousands of students have just simply detached and disappeared. By not making the distinction between disengaged students and those students who have detached, the extent  of this hidden crisis is masked.

It is almost incomprehensible that, in Australia, young people of all ages have been able to detach themselves from formal education and that we don’t know who they are, where they are, how this has happened and why they remain largely hidden.

While there is no national data set that records the number of detached students, we know they are out there.This report’s conservative estimate, based on two state education departments’ internal data analysis and used as a population and comparative for each state and territory, is that there may be upwards of 50 000 unaccounted detached students across the country. The Australian Bureau of Statistics 2016 Census found that for 174 932 school-aged children there was no information provided about student status or type of educational institution they were attending. UNESCO data, in comparative international monitoring, estimates that in 2017 the number of out-of-school children, adolescents and youth of primary and secondary age in Australia was 39 314.

Factors affecting disengagement leading to detachment include identity issues, learning difficulties, lack of financial resources, family dysfunction, mental illness, extra-curricula activities, school connectedness, academic motivation, relationships with teachers and peers, and bullying.

Download the full report

Key messages

  • We have a serious problem with young people detaching from schools in Australia.
  • Australian education systems do not adequately keep track of detached young people, so they ‘disappear’.
  • We do not have enough alternative schools/settings to pick up detached school aged young people when they detach from school.
  • Prevention of detachment needs to start with identification and intervention in quality early childhood education settings.
  • Conservative estimates are that at least 50 000 children and young people of school age have detached from any educational program or institution, across the country at any given time.
  • A multitude of factors lead to school disengagement and then detachment.
  • There is no national response to disengagement or detachment in schools beyond a broad national Year 12 or equivalent completion target of 90 per cent.
  • The social and economic costs for each early school leaver are large: a fiscal cost of $334 600 and a social cost of $616 200 over their lifetime.


  • A national commitment

    We need a national commitment to ensure all children and young people are supported to access a quality education that suits their needs and personal challenges, especially those at risk of disengaging or detaching. This includes funding and long-term support for accessible tailored programs and alternative and/or flexible schools for at-risk children and young people to remain engaged and achieve success.

  • Sharing data

    We need to share data across all schools, school systems and related government departments to ensure that we are able to identify the educational status and current location of every school-aged student in the country. This requires a unique student identifier but much more than that it requires a ‘relay baton’ approach with individual schools and systems held accountable if they ‘drop the baton’ and thereby allow students to disappear.

  • Early intervention

    It is essential to prioritise focus on identification and intervention of students at risk in the early years to enable the ongoing provision of support for children and families based on identified need. This includes support for a high quality early years workforce, and ongoing funding for all children across Australia to participate in quality early childhood education. We must ensure adequate and effective case management for all students at risk, providing intervention as early as possible to stop students falling out of the system.

  • Support for teachers and schools

    It is imperative that professional learning and improved support services be provided for all teachers and schools across the country in order to better identify at-risk students and families and to be able to provide more inclusive education programs that better cater for students with complex needs and challenges.

  • Accountability

    There must be national accountability with transparent indicators to guarantee full student participation and ongoing attendance across all levels of education, including requisite supports to enable all students to participate.

  • Support for children currently detached

    We need to identify and support the children who are currently detached from education to re-enter the education system and to successfully complete their education. To do this effectively, we must guarantee the rigor and effectiveness of all current alternative and flexible schools, and to ensure that suitable options for students at risk are available to all students across the country.

  • Increased investment

    To bring about the changes so urgently required, there needs to be a significantly greater investment in psychology, mental health and allied support services to ensure all students and families receive the care required to achieve at their optimal level.

  • Remove systemic barriers

    Importantly, we must remove the systemic barriers that have contributed to a culture where school success is primarily judged on nationally tested literacy and numeracy results rather than a more holistic view of physical, social and emotional health and well-being, and preparing young people for a post-school pathway, alongside cross curriculum academic achievement.


This Report, Those Who Disappear: The Australian education problem that nobody wants to talk about, should be a wake-up call for governments right around Australia at the Commonwealth, State, Territory and Local levels to band together with the community to acknowledge and expediently deal with this largely unspoken of problem in our society.

There can be no greater priority for our society than the health, care, education, nurturing, development and opportunity of every young person, no matter how unfortunate their circumstances. It is beyond time for governments, education departments and schools in all sectors to work collaboratively and, for once, on a unique bipartisan endeavour. The loss of educational opportunities through disengagement and eventual detachment for the significant but unknown number of school aged students at any given time across Australia is a national calamity. This issue requires the declaration of a national emergency, in line with the same level of urgency as we would display if there was a season of raging bushing fires, or floods, cyclones or a major earthquake. This should be everybody’s business. We need key stakeholders sitting around the tables in the ‘War Rooms’ like those Crisis Response Centres that exist in every State and Territory.

We owe it to our young people to get this right by not leaving anyone behind. It should go without saying that every child matters.

How could this happen in the ‘Lucky Country’ and not be a national priority you might ask? Well, quite simply up until now, throwing large sums of funding at our most marginalised and invisible young people is not a vote winner in elections.

In short, we need to prioritise the identification, care and educational success of every young person and to do that, we need to know where they are and to have schools that are able to address their barriers to learning and life. Instead of spending countless dollars over the lifetime of detached students through government services such as juvenile justice, health, welfare, housing, unemployment payments and a host of other allied service costs, we must intervene earlier to focus on the necessary support and educational adjustments that can meet the complex needs of our most marginalised and disadvantaged. We think of lack of access to a school education as being a problem of developing countries not one occurring right here in our own back-yard.

Unfortunately, the solutions will take years to effectively embed and the results (if we were to be successful) would not immediately add to high performance standards that we currently measure. It is therefore easier not to talk about this national disgrace, not to put safeguards in place to identify the names, faces and stories of the compulsory aged students we have lost track of or ‘burned’ and to not focus the public on the failure of education systems to cater for the incredibly diverse needs of our wide spectrum of young people.

We owe it to our young people to get this right by not leaving anyone behind. It should go without saying that every child matters.