Not every young person in Australia is able to access or benefit from our education system. This is something we need to talk about. It is currently a hidden and shocking educational problem that must be brought out into the open and made into a national priority.

A transformational education liberates and enhances life outcomes in terms of health, income, satisfaction, relationships, creativity, curiosity and wellbeing. As a comparatively well developed and prosperous nation, we pride ourselves on the fundamental commitment, right and universal provision of a free and secular education for all. A quality education system across all parts of the nation is vital for our economic development, social harmony, environmental sustainability, equality of opportunity and our cultural distinction of a fair go for all.

This report aims to shine a light on the lack of equity and opportunity that undermines our seemingly high quality education system. It’s well beyond time to examine our collective conscience and peel back the veneer of compulsory school participation, in order to expose the plight of those young Australians who do not benefit from what the rest of us think is an inescapable entitlement. That is, to be educated. This report is about those young people across Australia of compulsory school age who, for multiple reasons, are not participating in an education program of any type. They’re not absent from school; they simply aren’t in one. We’ve allowed them to opt out and disappear through a range of different ‘trap doors’. These young people are invisible to most of us and they desperately need a voice to make this intolerable problem everyone’s business.

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. Ironically, many concerned and generous Australian citizens care so much about the access for all to a quality education that they nobly donate money and sponsor impoverished children in developing third world countries to ensure that their life chances are improved through basic school provision. All the while, most of us don’t realise that significant numbers of young people in this country are suffering from the same deprivation.

This report is about those young people across Australia of compulsory school age who, for multiple reasons, are not participating in an education program of any type.

Let us be clear who we are talking about; we don’t mean the many young people who are distracted and disengaged from learning nor those school-refusers who are known to be attending school irregularly. By detached we mean a complete uncoupling from formal education by a student of compulsory school age who is no longer enrolled in a formal educational program of any type. For the most part, it seems that nobody seems to be in a hurry to locate or reconnect these young people.

There is a tendency to use the word disengaged in an educational context to identify those students who are struggling at school, which is often related to issues such as poor attendance, anxiety, bullying, mental health issues, disability, family dysfunction, behavioural problems, suspensions and exclusions. These students need to have their educational challenges addressed before school disengagement turns into school detachment. This report acknowledges the prevalence of student disengagement across the nation as a serious barrier to achievement, however, we don’t want to confuse the term disengaged with the even more devastating issue of school detachment.

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 identifying that many students have just simply detached and disappeared. By not making the distinction between disengaged students and those students who have detached, the extent of the hidden disaster is masked. It should be our most urgent national educational priority; that is the care, protection, reconnection, wellbeing and life-chances of our children. Our refusal to talk about this issue allows us to assume that it couldn’t be happening in this country.

This report is about a potentially huge number of young Australians who are being left behind and whose future is bleak, to put it mildly. These young people are evading detection or identification and do not regularly come under the notice of government departments or not-for-profit agencies that could reconnect them back into fit-for-purpose schools that better meet their needs and challenges. In an era of ‘big data’ and measurement on everything, somehow we’ve never been able to, or perhaps wanted to, calculate or identify the number young people of compulsory school age across the country who have detached from a formal education institution and are not participating when they legally should be. Surely we track the educational participation, progress, health and wellbeing of every school-aged young person in Australia? But, the answer is that we do not know, and we appear to be in no hurry to find ways to do so.

It would be easy to be sceptical about the magnitude of such a problem that so far cannot, or indeed has not, been accurately measured. Unfortunately, however, this problem is real, and it is reflective of the intransigence of governments at all levels across the country to share information in order to identify the magnitude of this scandal.