The Central Highlands has one of the highest rates of early school leavers in Victoria.
Data shows more than one in five students in the region are dropping out of school early.
The latest Victorian government On Track survey revealed 621 young people in Ballarat exited school before completing year 12 in 2016. That same year 1239 young people completed year 12 or equivalent in Ballarat.
Regional educators and organisations are on a mission to improve student engagement.
They have been working collaboratively will all levels of government through the Central Highlands Child and Youth Area Partnership since 2016.
Now the partnership has set an ambitious goal – that all students in the Central Highlands complete year 12 by 2030 – and it’s currently in the process of planning how it will be achieved.
TOO MANY KIDS ARE NOT FINISHING SCHOOL
Members of the Central Highlands Child and Youth Area partnership agree too many young people are not finishing school.
Highlands Local Learning and Employment Network executive officer Jannine Bennett said 10 per cent less students complete year 12 or its equivalent in the Highlands region.
“We know a lot of kids are not finishing school who should,” she said.
We know a lot of kids are not finishing school who should.Jannine Bennett, Highlands LLEN executive officer
On Track data shows there were 53 people completed year 12 or equivalent in the Hepburn Shire in 2016, while 30 people left school early.
In Moorabool Shire 230 students completed year 12 or equivalent in 2016, while 44 left school early.
In the same period 23 students completed year 12 or equivalent in the Pyrenees Shire, while seven left school early.
Educators and researchers have acknowledged the reasons for student disengagement are complex, ranging from a history of trauma to difficulty fitting into a mainstream school model.
Federation University School of Arts Dean Professor John McDonald has conducted research on student disengagement in the past.
He will oversee a new three year Federation University and Highlands LLEN research project which will investigate the issues leading to high rates of student disengagement and work toward a whole of community approach to provide a solution.
“There are so many reasons why people leave school early,” he said.
“It can be to do with things like poverty, mental health, and family breakdown.
“We know from research there are two main factors that account for early school leaving. One is the socio-economic status of communities. The more disadvantaged you are the stronger the likelihood of disengagement or early school leaving. We also know the further away from metro areas the higher the rate of early school leaving and lower participation in training and further education. Both things are playing out across the Central Highlands.”
Through her role at Highlands LLEN, Ms Bennett has worked with dozens of disengaged students, many who have felt they don’t fit into the mainstream school system.
“This year we have had a number of phone calls from parents who have been referred to us because the traditional schooling system is not working for their son or daughter,” she said.
“We are even seeing high achieving students not going to school.
“It is very disappointing hearing some of the reasons why they are leaving our education system. Some of the reasons are that they don’t meet the uniform policy, they are experiencing bullying, often another key reason is mental health issues and basically feeling like they don’t fit into the system. Sometimes the school makes it very clear that they don’t fit in and they need to look for something different.”
Sometimes the school makes it very clear that they don’t fit in and they need to look for something different.Jannine Bennett, Highlands LLEN executive officer
But Ms Bennett explained looking for ‘something different’ can be an often impossible task in regional areas.
In smaller communities like Daylesford and Beaufort there is only one high school nearby. Limited alternative and flexible learning options are available in Ballarat.
“Schools are not always able to cater for the diverse students that are requiring education. In places like Melbourne, there are many different choices for kids who may not be mainstream cookie cutter kids, whereas in Ballarat we don’t have those kinds of choices unless they are in a flexible learning program,” Ms Bennett said.
“The drops outs we are seeing certainly are coming from Ballarat. I think that occurs because the schools think there are other options and programs. We have a far higher proportion of private schools than there would normally be. Everyone competes for students in our town. The state schools are setting themselves up in competition and in some ways, they are becoming a bit more like the private school model.”
ALTERNATIVE EDUCATION OPTIONS
There are options available in the Central Highlands region for students to continue education away from the traditional school setting.
They’re referred to as ‘flexible learning programs’, like the Berry Street School, FLIP program run at Ballarat High School, DOTS program at Pheonix P-12 Community College and LinkUp at Ballarat Secondary College.
There are more than 900 flexible learning programs educating around 70,000 students across Australia.
Professor McDonald said more programs were setting up as an increasing number of students were presenting with complex problems and not coping in mainstream school.
The Flexible Learning Intervention Pathway (FLIP), as one example, is an online learning program that connects students who work from home with a mentor.
Central Highlands was selected as a pilot for the state government supported Navigator program in 2016. It identifies students who are missing too much school and guides intervention through support for a range of complex issues such as family violence, mental health issues, homelessness, alcohol and other drug use.
The 2018-19 Budget included $44 million to expand the Navigator pilot program to communities across the state. It has been revealed the Department of Education and Training will recruit two additional staff members to work exclusively in Ballarat to reduce disengagement.
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Alternative learning options are also available as part of the curriculum in some schools.
Highlands LLEN coordinates the VET in schools program for Ballarat.
VET courses (Vocation Education and Training) are available to students in years 10, 11 and 12, offering practical hands on experience in areas such as automotive, hairdressing, fashion design, and engineering.
Ms Bennett said engaging in a hands on course could help students remain engaged in school.
“A lot of kids in year 10, 11 or 12 find if they are heading out of school to do automotive or hairdressing, it can make them more inspired to stay at school and do the other subjects they may not be as enthusiastic about,” she said.
She referred to one young worker student as an example of the potential success of VET programs.
Former Beaufort Secondary College and VET Engineering student Zak Biggin has been acknowledged as the best fitter and turner in Australia.
He came first place at the Worldskills Australia National Championship in Sydney earlier in June.
Twenty-year-old Zak is now in the process of applying to compete at the international trades competition in Russia next year.
He became a fully qualified fitter and turner after finishing his VET course and apprenticeship. He is now employed at Findlay Engineering.
“My VET course helped a lot because you learn all of the basics of the trade with a qualification at the end too,” Zak said.
Many students from surrounding regional areas like Beaufort and Bacchus March, like Zak, travel to Ballarat to attend VET classes, but it can prove a challenge for others, like students in Daylesford where the only public transport to Ballarat is an infrequent bus service.
That’s why Daylesford Secondary College principal Steve Macphail said it was even more important for the isolated school to cater for the diverse needs of its students on campus.
Daylesford Secondary College runs its own VET classes at the school, among a range of other alternative learning programs.
The VCAL program runs as an alternative to VCE for students who aren’t academically focussed at school. Students spend one school day a week in a workplace.
Mr Macphail said without the VCAL program, the ‘hands on’ type students would have no where else to go.
“It is important we have that program. Without it, they can drop out,” he said.
A Hands On Learning program provides a similar opportunity for students in year nine. It takes the students out of the classroom for one day a week to do community focused projects. Students have painted parts of the school, planted at a wildlife sanctuary and made picnic benches for the local park.
“A lot of these alternative programs are aimed at giving kids who may not have felt success the chance to experience what it feels like,” Mr Macphail said.
The Cook, the Chef and Us program takes year nine and 10 students identified as at risk of disengagement into a local business to be mentored in hospital by chefs and business owners.
Flexible timetabling is offered to students who may not be able to cope with being at school all day five days a week, while the well-being team works to identify and work with kids who are at risk of disengagement.
But Mr Macphail said student engagement stemmed back to the transition from primary to secondary school.
“If that transition process doesn’t go well, the downward spiral can start early and the thought of leaving school can go right back to year seven,” he said.
While some educators are are employing preventative measures, Ballarat’s Berry Street School works to re-engage students with education.
Staff work with students who have already left the mainstream school system using a trauma informed approach, believing teachers must address primary issues first to give students the chance to learn.
Educators from Berry Street’s Ballarat campus attended the Doing School Differently Conference on the Gold Coast on Thursday and Friday, to advance the national conversation on flexible and inclusive education.
Berry Street senior advisor education Tom Brunzell said teachers could do so much more in Australia to engage young people in education – starting with changing school culture, curriculum, teacher training and teacher strategies.
“We love the movement in mainstream schools where principals are saying, ‘we need to do school differently because we don’t want to lose students’. But unfortunately that is not every principal,” he said.
“The main theme of the conference was the effect of trauma on the brain and the impact on development. What I am so excited about is we are now starting to understand kids struggle because there are many many development markers that have not been met.
“The trauma informed process can be translated beyond alternative learning options like Berry Street. If our teachers in mainstream understood these things then they would be able to meet the needs of their struggling students and all their students.
“I would love to see every teacher in our country value student well-being, relationships, and student mental health as much as the curriculum. The research is clear if we can incorporate this in the classroom, kids will learn more.
“This is about a value shift and a mind shift, not just in one school but in the community.”
This is about a value shift and a mind shift, not just in one school but in the community.Tom Brunzell, Berry Street senior advisor education
Those working in the field appear to agree it is not just up to the schools to make change – a whole of community approach is needed.
Federation University and Highlands LLEN research, which is set to begin in coming months, will inform the direction of the Central Highlands Child and Youth Area Partnership to achieve its goal of all students completing year 12 in the region by 2030.
Professor McDonald said the research would look to a whole of community, place based approach by pooling ideas and resources for an approach that will work in the Central Highlands.
Meanwhile, Highlands LLEN is working with the Department of Education and Training to provide professional development for teachers in the Central Highlands to increase awareness of mental health issues in young people.
The Child and Youth Area partnership is also in the processes of setting up a youth advisory board, to provide a student voice in the process of driving change.
Organisations and educators acknowledge change will take time, but it will be most effectively driven by community collaboration.
In the meantime, the goal remains – to ensure all young people in the Central Highlands complete year 12 or equivalent by 2030.