The Central Highlands region has one of the highest rates of early school leavers in Victoria.
The latest Victorian government On Track survey revealed 569 young people in Ballarat exited school before completing year 12 in 2017. That same year 1266 young people completed year 12 or equivalent in Ballarat.
One innovative school program is having success in improving student engagement and long-term education outcomes, as early as grade five.
The Hands On Learning program is helping dozens of students in the region develop confidence and skills that are helping them re-connect to school and set themselves up for future success.
For so many kids, a traditional classroom setting isn't working for them.Steve Schneider, Hands on Learning
The in-school program supported by aid agency Save the Children takes participating students out of the classroom for hands on learning one day a week.
Teachers, principals, parents and the students themselves are seeing the impact of the program, both in the classroom and in attendance and engagement rates.
WHAT IS HANDS ON LEARNING?
The Hands on Learning program started in Frankston in 1999 and now runs in more than 100 schools in Australia across year levels five to 10.
Mount Clear College, Beaufort Secondary College, Daylesford College and Creswick Primary School run the program for around 10 students at each school one day a week.
Students spend the time at their school working together on practical projects, including construction and hospitality, that foster teamwork, communication and problem-solving skills.
The model creates a place to belong on school grounds but outside the classroom where students build relationships, learn through real life projects that give back to the school community, and develop strategies to shift attitudes and behaviours that can be barriers to learning in the classroom.
Hands on Learning Regional Victoria School Support Manager Steve Schneider said the ultimate goal was to re-engage young people with education before they drop out, but also equip them with the skills to succeed at school.
"For so many kids, a traditional classroom setting isn't working for them," he said.
"For a lot of the children involved, they don't have the easiest life and this is somewhere they can spend the majority of the day doing something they are really interested in and passionate about with someone who is interested in them.
"All you have to do is walk in and see how much fun they are having. It is great to see kids engaged and happy in what they do."
When The Courier visited Mount Clear College's Hands on Learning program, students were working in small teams building dog kennels. Some students hammered nails into wood, while others sanded rough edges, measured wood and cut it to size.
A colourful Hands on Learning sign on the fence behind the group's own shipping container and outdoor working area serves as a symbol of the ownership they have created over their own space, while building a connection to each other through purposeful projects that give back to their community.
While most of the group work outside on the dog kennels, year nine student Kaiden works alone fixing cabinets inside the shipping container.
It is Kaiden's third year in the program. He has developed a maturity and independence that has lead to initiating work on projects that will improve the school's Hands on Learning space.
Kaiden said he was struggling in class and to make friends when he first entered the program. Now he has ambitions to finish year 12, and work for Hands on Learning when he graduates.
"It was tough coming into year seven. I didn't know my way around. I had gotten used to being around certain people in primary school and coming to a new school I couldn't focus because I didn't know anyone," he said.
Now my focus is on being a leader in the group.Kaiden, Hands on Learning participant
"I came into Hands on Learning and got to the point where I could make friends and focus in class.
"I have had about 15 focus plans over the years. We try to complete that goal.
"When I started I had focus plans about maturity. I used to work and then get distracted. My last one was about focusing on one task and respect towards the group was one at the start of last year. Now my focus is on being a leader in the group."
During our visit to the school, Kaiden was working to remove and repair cabinets that had been installed in the shipping container. By the end of the year the group hopes to use the area for cooking.
He pointed to some wooden chairs against the wall the group made from pallets earlier in the year and he speaks about an aquaponics project he worked on from beginning to end.
"We come up with ideas and put them on the white board. We have all different ideas on the board here," Kaiden said.
Also on the white board are focus plans that each member of the group decides and assesses for themselves and each other each week.
At the end of each session they reflect on their progress and whether they met their focus plan throughout the program day.
Once I leave I want to work with Hands on Learning.Kaiden, year nine
Kaiden said Hands on Learning had taught him teamwork, respect and responsibility.
"The program has definitely helped and it has shown me respect in class. It is one reason why I turn up to school most days because I struggle a lot in class, but I get this break and time out of class," he said.
"I am focused in class now. That is what will help me with a lot more at school. I am not sure what I want to do for the rest of school yet but I know I want to stay until the end of year 12.
"Once I leave I want to work with Hands on Learning. I have already spoken to Steve about that."
Mount Clear College principal Lynita Taylor said the school began the Hands on Learning program three years ago in response to recognition that a number of students were disengaging from education in the middle years of schooling.
"In the program we are trying to catch them before it happens," she said.
"What we are finding is engagement back in the classroom is really impressive. That is the goal.
"It is not about taking them out of the class. It is that they are out there, doing something that connects them to the school, building self-esteem, confidence and connections, but then the carrot is they have to be doing well in their classes to stay in that program.
"We had one boy in particular who had worked out his goals and where he wanted to go in that program, had time to reflect out of the classroom and then told us he wanted to be back in his classes. He said he realised he wanted to go on to university and was worried about missing out on class time."
We have one student who has attended school for about four days since grade five and they have all been Hands on Learning days.Brett Domaschenz, Mount Clear College
Mount Clear College Hands on Learning coordinator Brett Domaschenz said the program included a diverse range of students with individual challenges, but for some, the program was the sole reason for attending school.
"We have one student who has attended school for about four days since grade five and they have all been Hands on Learning days," he said.
"Most of them want to be at school. A lot of them have social issues, they get bullied or do the bullying and get bullied. There are other students who have lost family members, there might be separation in the families or unstable homes. The good part about this is the structure is the same every week.
"The general student comes in young and immature and unable to focus on any task, students who can't sit down in the classroom and don't get much done because they are distracted. When they come here most of them are focused, they don't get distracted and they remind each other if they are doing well or not quite meeting their focus plan today. That team environment helps instill the sense they can do it. At the end of the day we reflect on that and they get positive or constructive feedback.
"The vision of our Hands on Learning program is to have these students at a level where they have the skills to do better in their class or they are set up to do apprenticeships and traineeships. A lot of them don't have support at home, or they are forgotten about in their classroom because there are 25 other students. This is a place they can openly work on the things they know they are not good at, to continue that space and prepare them for life down the track."
Save the Children is calling for a $10 million federal government funding commitment over four years to be invested in the Hands on Learning program.
The funding would enable Save the Children to triple the program's reach to 300 schools around Australia.
A recent survey of parents found 86 per cent said their child's sense of belonging had improved since being in Hands on Learning, while 85 per cent said the program was the main reason their child has been engaged and motivated to come to school.
Hands on Learning was recognised by Finnish education non-profit HundrED as one of the most inspiring education innovations worldwide in 2017.
Watch the video from HundrED below.
A Grattan Institute study found around 40 per cent of students aged between nine and 14 were disengaged and unproductive in any given year, an age period that is identified as a key development stage.
The Hands on Learning Future Directions report released in March calls for the federal, state and territory governments to work with and resource schools to develop improved data to more effectively measure student engagement outcomes in school education and develop an independent evidence base to helps schools identify what works to support disengaged young people.
The report identifies students from disadvantaged areas, an Indigenous background, with parents with low education levels, students from a stressful home environment or don't feel like they belong at school are at high risk of disengagement.
DISENGAGED AS EARLY AS PRIMARY SCHOOL
Primary school teachers are seeing disengagement now becoming a primary school issue, not only a concern for secondary education providers.
Mr Schneider said this concern was evident as more primary schools were expressing interest in adopting Hands on Learning in their school.
Creswick Primary School began the program earlier this year for grade five and six pupils after student voice and agency was identified as a focus during last year's school review.
Creswick Primary School acting leading teacher student well-being Ingrid Humm said the pupils had ownership over every aspect of the program, from deciding their projects and focuses, to budgeting for materials.
"It is not about the teachers saying we need this project done, it is about the students walking around and realising things like we need more seating in the courtyard, how can we make it," she said.
"We look up Bunnings, how much things cost, make a budget and measure how much we would need. They are planning from the beginning right through to the end of the project.
"The kids are a little bit out of their comfort zone but it is giving them strengths in areas they didn't realise they had."
Grade five pupil Brandon started at Creswick Primary School in March. He said participating in the Hands on Learning program had helped him make friends and feel more comfortable at school.
"It helps me come to school happy," he said.
Mr Schneider said he believed Hands on Learning had the potential to change engagement rates in education by helping students with different talents flourish.
"Hands on Learning was never traditionally in primary schools. The only reason we are in primary schools is because primary schools are coming to us and asking if they can run it in their primary school. To me that is alarming, that you can be in grade three or four and people are recognising you are tapping out of education. That is absolutely shocking to me," he said.
"Once you get to year 10 opportunities and programs for alternative learning open up. But there are kids who are tapping out early in grade four and five, they go into secondary school where transition is a tipping point for a lot of kids, and your habit might be to bail, to be mute or to not turn up when it gets hard. So many kids from year seven, eight and nine muddle through until they get to year 10.
"What I am hearing from most people when I talk to them at schools is even when these students get to year 10 or year 11, they have learnt so little or have so little confidence and capacity that when they get to these opportunities they are not ready for them anyway and they don't succeed and then feel worse about themselves. Then what path do we put them on?
"Hands on Learning allows them to be successful and into a pathway of VCAL or VET or after school. Our aim is to open up their world that you can be successful in school. It is not like you are in Hands on Learning and we see you as a tradie. But if you show them how to be organised, work with other people, have a good work ethic, focus on a task so that when you get those opportunities in year 10 you are going to be ready for them and you are going to be successful."