The federal government has set a goal of 90% of Australia’s young people achieving year 12 or equivalent attainment by 2015. This goal provides a point of reference for reform and is a laudable aim, however, the changes needed to achieve this goal are not likely to happen in a mere four years. To reach this goal young people, educators, researchers, and policymakers will all need to work together to understand why so many young people are not currently succeeding in school.
According to the Australian Government, in 2009 74% of all young people and only 59% of students from low socio-economic status finish Year 12. This means that today there are more than half a million young people in Australia between the ages 15 and 24 that will not choose a pathway within the current system of certification and training. This statistic indicates that mainstream schools are not currently meeting the needs of all young people. Research also shows that of young people who do not complete year 12, groups with certain characteristics are over represented including low academic achievers, boys and indigenous young people. In addition, many young people do not come to school ready to learn because physical or emotional needs are not being met; or young people have personal or cultural reasons that prohibit them from thriving in current school environments.
The educational challenges and opportunities that young people and the adults who care about them must navigate are complex. Without reflection, collaboration, and action the systems that continue to exclude many young people will not change. In response to this challenge, two examples of collaborations are offered that I argue exemplify the measures needed to understand and act to re-engage youth in educational opportunities.
The Youth Affairs Network of Queensland (YANQ), an organisation that advocates to government and community, on behalf of young people in Queensland, especially disadvantaged young people, includes re-engagement among its top priorities. Over the past fifteen years YANQ has worked with Alternative Education providers on the forefront of re-engaging students with education. During this time YANQ hosted a state-wide network of Alternative Education providers and released a number of discussion papers based on the strategies used in these sites. In 2010, YANQ released a report, Re-engaging Students in Education, in collaboration with two researchers, Martin Mills of the University of Queensland and Glenda McGregor from Griffith University, calling attention to the issue and offering specific recommendations based on analysis of five detailed case studies of sites successfully re-engaging young people in South East Queensland.
By talking to teachers and young people the researchers identified the characteristics of these settings that were important to young people. The findings identified trends across sites, such as: their ability to provide additional services to young people enabling them to attend (such as crèches and housing support); the development of a relevant and meaningful curriculum designed to meet the needs of their specific students; and, a focus on the relationships between students and teachers. The report emphasises the re-engagement agenda will be moved forward if, ‘the kinds of sites exempliﬁed within this study receive the levels of support necessary to their on-going sustainability.’
With a shared interest in supporting the re-engagement of young people in Queensland this innovative partnership provides a powerful combination of key issues and evidence-based recommendations that reflect the knowledge of young people, practitioners, and researchers.
Another collaborative effort argues, ‘what is lacking [from mainstream schools] is attention to how practitioners consciously and purposefully think about and build community within educational settings.’ At that heart of this collaboration is the Albert Park Flexible Learning Centre which serves young people ages 14-19 who are marginalized from the mainstream schools system. The school, comprised of about 90 young people and 15 adults, offers a wide variety of curriculum designed to ‘empower young people to take personal responsibility for their actions and learning, achieve greater autonomy and self-reliance and to engage in the transition to further education and/or employment.’
Through their article, Education for Liberation and Citizenship: Community Practice within Albert Park Flexible Learning Centre, Peter Westoby, Paul Toon, and Francis Missen share both their methods and the results of engagement efforts at the school. The article itself and the work it describes bring together the expertise of a researcher, school staff and the perspectives of young people. What is most inspiring about their work is that young people at the school help to define and create community and in this setting are able to shift their dispositions making what had seemed previously unthinkable possible.
The Albert Park Flexible Learning Centre offers an effective alternative to mainstream schools that fosters collaboration among young people and adults creating the possibility of new and meaningful ways to engage young people in an educational setting.
While there is consensus at the local and national level that more young people in Australia should have learning opportunities that help them succeed in school and in life, how to do this is still very much up for debate. If year 12 attainment for more young people is the goal, engagement of more young people must be a priority. I argue that through collaborative and innovative partnerships that bring together diverse stakeholder groups like those mentioned above it will be possible for all Australian young people to engage in educational opportunities.
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