What are the causes of school detachment?

It is possible that some of these young people ‘detached-from-formal education’ may never have been enrolled in the first place, others would have moved locations and not re-enrolled, with a great many more just silently departing from their current school and disappearing out of sight.

There are no nationally consistent tracking mechanisms, and no articulated or dedicated support mechanisms across the country to ensure that children re-engage with the education system once they leave. Community care organisations and alternative schools working in the margins to support incredibly vulnerable young people that mainstream institutions have disregarded or closed their doors to, know very well the tragic circumstances of many of their lives. There are far too many stories of young people who don’t fit the desired profile of regular everyday schools due to issues related to bullying, domestic violence, dysfunctional home-lives, anxiety, disability, mental health issues, anger management issues and behavioural disorders, boredom, gender and sexuality acceptance and a multitude of other and allied issues. These students either disappear or, worse still, are silently ushered out of the ‘back door’ by school leaders concerned about the reputational impact of these students on potentially lowered NAPLAN (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy) and ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Ranks) scores or due to community concerns about their behaviour or ‘fit’.

We have been told a number of stories about school administrators who have firmly suggested to ‘difficult’ and ‘poor performing’ students that it may be in their interest to move to a ‘more appropriate’ institution that could better cater for their complex needs.

Kristy DeBrenni is a remarkable Principal of the life-saving Pathways College which is located across six campuses in Queensland. ‘Pathways’ is a public alternative school that is devoted to reconnecting young people who have rejected, or been rejected by, mainstream schools. She says that of the 220 enrolled students in 2019, about 10 per cent had previously been able to just detach and disappear from formal education, with another 20 per cent transient (moving in an out of various institutions) and the majority of the rest of her students having departed from mainstream schools through the various issues identified above. Most predominantly, the issues were connected to adverse mental health.


Domestic violence
Sexual acceptance

Kristy DeBrenni believes that mainstream schools reject students with challenging conditions because “If schools ‘save’ these kids then school performance data is negatively impacted and the school can be deemed by significant others as a failure.”

In other words, there is little incentive for mainstream schools in today’s narrow and competitive educational environment to attempt to take in and rehabilitate detached and disengaged young people because the consequences appear too negative. Thus, high needs students often become collateral damage in the quest for higher academic performance and enhanced reputation.

Alternative schools like Kristy’s that have a moral, ethical, compassionate and customised approach to doing whatever it takes to provide the fundamental life-skills and holistic support for ongoing success, are also regarded by many as academically underperforming and unsuccessful despite being the only hope that our most marginalised young people have. It seems that we have developed a performance and funding culture across Australia that doesn’t value anything beyond literacy and numeracy. What we so desperately need to focus on is also social and emotional health in addition to student engagement across a broad curriculum that excites and creates opportunities for students to follow their passions.

As Kristy says: “For those students that society has neglected, once reattached and fully supported, they often don’t want to leave upon graduation because, for many, their school has become their family”.

Indeed, like all of the student centred and unique alternative schools located around the country, Pathways College doesn’t need to advertise. Most are full and doing their best to save as many young people as possible. Unfortunately, there aren’t nearly enough of these bespoke educational alternatives to cater for the numbers of students who need them so many just simply detach and disappear.

Despite his tragic circumstances, ‘Jack’ is one of the incredibly lucky and determined young people who, through the fog of drugs, homelessness and hopelessness, found his way back to education and another chance at life. There was only a very slim chance that ‘Jack’ would positively and proactively change his trajectory, but it was one he was prepared to grasp. Jack’s self-driven reattachment is so unusual because most schools around Australia, public, Catholic and Independent, are not suitable for the vast majority of detached, disengaged, disabled, angry, anxious, bullied or abused children who have drifted out of view and who are actually spread across the nation right in front of our noses. Not only are traditional schools not always capable of providing for the marginalised and afflicted, but many of our educational organisations, due to resourcing constraints, deliberately do not seek to build pathways back into education for the young detached or disengaged.

In fact, the inconvenient truth is that many of our finest schools have created conditions where our most marginalised and vulnerable children are given no real choice but to leave because, for them, school is no longer tolerable. Some school principals and staff look the other way when problems at their schools become too difficult and challenging with ‘mainstream’ parents calling for stronger discipline and less tolerance for non-conformist behaviour. For many schools, it is much easier if problematic students, who are often battling mental health issues, just do not turn up at school at all rather than having to go down the esteem-ruining suspension and exclusion pathways.

We were told by a number of people interviewed for this report that, disturbingly, there is even a common term used to reference those students that schools find easier to ‘move on’ rather than address their challenges. The ‘back door exit’ approach for schools is commonly and apparently widely known in alternative education circles as being burned.

If the notion of burning kids who don’t fit our one-size-fits-all industrial model of education doesn’t make you feel sick, then there probably isn’t much point reading the rest of the paper.