Don’t all children need to be in school? What are governments doing to keep young people in education?

This problem is not simply a legislative one.

Across Australia the official school leaving age is 17: different legislation applies across the country regarding penalties for failing to ensure a child attends school, although these are rarely invoked. A range of processes must be followed in order to prosecute parents and this usually includes departments working with families to resolve barriers to attendance. There is a low level of prosecution across the country for parents of children missing school.

This may represent a reluctance of systems to penalise parents and a desire to work with families. Alternatively, it may reveal a lack of action when students stop attending; chasing non-attending students is labour intensive, particularly if they are transient. It is a difficult task given the multitude of issues a young person may present with and one for which schools are not resourced.

Overall, one in five children start school behind their peers, and half of these do not finish their education or go on to employment.

All Australian governments have committed to young people finishing school. In 1990, Australia ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which requires Australia to recognise the right to education for everyone under the age of 18 years. Australia has long had targets for Year 12 or equivalent completion. There have been periods where it appears that governments were arguably more concerned about the issue of young people not completing school. Back in 2009, all Australian governments agreed to a goal that, by 2015, 90 percent of young people would complete Year 12 or its equivalent. To support this, governments agreed to a range of initiatives under the moniker of the National Partnership on Youth Attainment and Transitions which was in place from 2009/10 to 2013/14. This National Youth Participation Requirement required all young people to participate in schooling and/or education, training or employment until the age of 17 years. Nationally funded initiatives included Youth Connections, a program explicitly focused on linking young people who were disengaged (detached) from education back into school or an alternative setting. Under this program around 4000 young people per annum were re-engaged with education, with survey data showing the majority who were engaged (re-attached) to education stayed after exiting the program. Unfortunately, National Partnerships are time limited in nature, so many of the initiatives supported through these programs including Youth Connections have now closed.

While the societal ramifications of student detachment are still a largely undiscovered priority, some jurisdictions are still seeking to actively intervene and re-attach young people back into education. For example, the Navigator program in Victoria is seeking to replace many of the functions of the defunct Youth Connections program – to work with young people, their families and support networks to address issues underlying disengagement and to help them re-engage with their education. It is delivered by community agencies, who work closely with local schools and school area teams. From 2019, services will be available across 11 Department areas, each tailored to its local community. In a further move to seek out detached young people, the Victorian Department of Education and Training is running a pilot on finding early leavers.

In 2009, all Australian governments agreed to a goal: 90% of young people would complete Year 12 or its equivalent by 2015.

Victorian Department of Education and Training Case Study: Reducing Early Leavers Project

The Victorian Government has set a target that aims for the proportion of students leaving education between years 9 and 12 to halve. To support the achievement of this goal, every government secondary school has been provided with a list of early leavers from 2018, and asked to follow up and re-engage these young people in education. Over 7000 young people were identified for follow up, with a sample of 58 partner schools being supported by the regional office to prioritise and approach young people. The project is still in its formative phase but has identified barriers related to the mental health of young people, a lack of clarity on who should follow up early leavers and an inconsistency between legislation mandating school attendance until 17 with a policy desire of all young people achieving Year 12 or equivalent. (Once students turn 17 they are able to legally leave school before achieving Year 12 Graduation.) The findings of the project available later in 2019, will inform future practice.

The challenge however, for any school system proactively seeking to re-attach ‘lost students’, is that a suitable array of alternative education and customised support settings that would be less confronting for those young people who have been traumatised or disenfranchised in mainstream schools, are not equitably available in all areas. It is abundantly clear that not all young people are able to flourish at their local one-size-fits-all (survival of the fittest) school so it should be incumbent on governments to ensure that suitable alternatives settings and programs  are in place for these young people.