A significant proportion of young Australians still do not finish high school. According to data released by the Productivity Commission on Tuesday, about one in five students leave before they reach Year 12.
In 2022, about 79% of students started Year 12, the lowest in the last ten years of data reported. The rate was higher for non-government schools (87.2%) than government schools (73.5%).
If a student reaches Year 12 it doesn’t mean they complete the year. Figures released last month by the South Australian Department for Education show of those who began Year 12 in the state, only 64% completed their Year 12 certificate.
This is a problem. But our work with non-mainstream schools is showing how we can retain and engage more students if they are treated with more respect and given more choice in the senior years.
Why is it important for young people to finish Year 12?
It is hugely important for young people to finish Year 12. Low-skilled, entry level jobs are disappearing.
In 2022, the National Skills Commission found more than nine out of ten new jobs to be created in the next five years will require post-secondary qualifications.
There is a clear link between finishing Year 12 and higher earning capacity – for one, students are more likely to earn above the minimum wage. But more than this, Year 12 is where young people start to build a career, rather than have a job.
School completion also means young people are more likely to be engaged in their communities and have a longer, healthier life.
Why are these students leaving?
Over the last few decades, the collapse in the youth labour market and raising the school leaving age has meant senior secondary schooling must accommodate a more diverse range of young people.
But it is still designed for a time when this stage of education was meant for a small elite.
If young people do not see themselves reflected in the curriculum or school structure, this is a problem. Exams and a heavy academic workload will not work for everyone. Simply bolting on vocational education and training programs don’t give young people enough choice and power to express their interests and skills.
We know if young people live in poverty, rural and remote locations or come from an Indigenous background, they have a have significantly lower chance of staying on for and completing Year 12.
Disadvantaged young people who don’t fit the narrow image and academic aspirations of schooling “success” are often told by their schools they would be better off leaving. This can be to another school or perhaps a vocational program. But it can start the journey out of school, without clear direction or guidance.
Many come to this conclusion themselves. The implicit contract that Year 12 completion leads to higher paid work in the future is not enough to counter the lack of belonging they feel at school.
A new type of school
Increasingly, research is showing us the way we do schooling needs to change to support all young people.
Our work is with new schools that are adapting to meet the needs of different groups of students.
Independent “special assistance schools” – sometimes known as flexi schools – cater for young people who have left mainstream education, because they have either failed or become disengaged. There is growing demand: there were 48 independent special assistance schools in the 2014 and 96 as of 2022 in addition to those in the Catholic sector.
What do special assistance schools do?
Special assistance schools have much to teach mainstream schools. Their strength comes from being small, usually with less than 150 students, with a focus on relationships that foster understanding and responding to their students.
These schools work with generalist teachers and a range of youth workers, social workers, makers, coaches and other adults to support student wellbeing. The curriculum follows students’ interests and passions.
There is direct negotiations about what students do. For example, a young person with an interest in visual arts may work with an artist-in-residence to organise and plan an exhibition on youth experiences with mental health.
In addition to the art making, they would explore the maths of organising an exhibition space, the literacy in communicating to others and increase their knowledge and understanding of their own wellbeing and how artists make a living.
Treating students as (young) adults
The students accessing these schools arrive with their own issues, ideas, aspirations, skills and capabilities. These young people have already made a choice, wanting to continue their education.
For some they want to do learning in the way they did it at school but in a smaller, more respectful place. Others come with a clear idea of what they want to achieve but not knowing how to get there. For others it is about testing the water.
We know students benefit from being treated like adults, where they feel their voice is heard and they have a say in how the school works.
We are partnering with special assistance schools in South Australia to speak to education authorities about how to get their work accredited. This could reimagine how learning and achievement is recognised for these young people.
This could potentially see students finish Year 12 without doing a battery of exams or assignments. Instead, they would develop a “learner profile”, which would reflect the the skills and learning they had developed.
But more than this, they will have developed networks, support and the confidence to talk about their capabilities and achievements.