Mainstream schools need to take back responsibility for educating disengaged students

Helen Stokes, University of Melbourne and Malcolm Turnbull, University of Melbourne

In this series we’ll explore how to improve schools in Australia. Some of the most prominent experts in the sector tackle key questions, including why we are not seeing much progress; whether we are assessing children in the most effective way; why parents need to listen to what the evidence tells us, and much more. The Conversation


Mainstream schools need to take back responsibility of educating all students, even those who have temporarily become disengaged in education.

An alternative education sector has rapidly expanded in recent decades as Australian federal and state policies have sought to keep disengaged and vulnerable young people in education.

Over 900 plus so-called flexible learning programs are operating throughout the country, within and outside mainstream schools, catering for more than 70,000 students each year.

The growth of this sector can be seen as both a reflection of changing labour markets – paired with rising youth unemployment – and a pragmatic response to exclusion practices by education systems that are focused on academic achievement and outcomes.

Exclusion from school places makes vulnerable young people at greater risk of long term unemployment, dependence on welfare, mental health issues and social isolation.

Young people unable to attend mainstream education then need to look for an educational alternative that addresses the complexity of their lives and needs.

Can these students still get a good education?

With success increasingly defined through league tables and comparison of schools through national tests such as the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN), a growing number (around 70,000) are no longer able to maintain their education in the mainstream system.

Many young people drop out or are excluded. This is often because of their feelings of rejection and disillusionment with a system that fails to recognise the impacts of disadvantage, related social and mental health issues, and family trauma.

Ideally, alternative programs offer the potential of a curriculum that is individualised and relevant to their lived experiences. They offer:

  • practical skills such as basic carpentry, motor maintenance or food preparation;
  • authentic learning experiences, which include real life tasks that are relevant to the student’s lived experience and facilitate success. For example, practical maths activities related to cooking and catering projects;
  • flexible learning that enables students to work at their own pace in small group or one-to-one situations;
  • a curriculum based on real-life scenarios, such as researching aspects of their local communities;
  • schooling that addresses the biological and developmental impacts of trauma before focusing on relationship-building and engagement with learning;
  • welfare and counselling support, which could include, for example, a school day consisting of two hours of counselling and two hours of classes.

Types of alternative education programs

Alternative education activities in Australia fall into three broad categories:

  • Programs within mainstream schools. These are usually aimed at keeping young people connected to school. Some are supported by philanthropic organisations, others by government initiatives.
  • Programs within Technical and Further Education (TAFE) or Adult and Continuing Education (ACE), such as Victorian Certificate of Alternative Learning (VCAL) (Years 11 and 12) or Certificate of General Education for Adults (to Year 10 level).
  • Standalone programs: often referred to as Flexible Learning Options (FLO). These programs operate either within mainstream settings but on separate sites or as separate schools in their own right. They typically offer alternative Year 9 to 12 options and/or curriculum and welfare support designed to meet the specific needs of their students, such as responding to the impact of trauma.

Such programs have the potential to support students at risk of disengaging entirely from mainstream education, but also to promote the resilience and well-being of all young people in mainstream schooling. This leads, in turn, to whole-school change that will benefit all students.

Many of the programs grapple with the delivery of a rigorous curriculum, the expectation of student academic achievement, and creating opportunities for students to return to mainstream education and training.

Taking back responsibility

Mainstream education needs to take back responsibility for adequately catering to the needs of a growing sector of marginalised young people, and learn to work in partnership with alternative education providers and community-based organisations to better support students.

One thing to consider is whether these sites of education offer a distinctive developmental approach that should influence curriculum and pedagogical design more widely.

Within the alternative sector, greater transparency is needed around curriculum and instructional quality, combined with better data on enrolments, course completion, and program outcomes.

We also need more consistent funding practices (many programs are dependent on the uncertainty of short-term grant allocations) and professional skills development.

These variables, consistently monitored and supported by effective local partnership between agencies, would contribute to a cultural shift in which Australian schools come to provide meaningful education for all young people, not just those engaged in the mainstream.


The authors explore this theme further in a new book called Educating Australia: Challenges for the Decade Ahead.

Helen Stokes, Associate professor, University of Melbourne and Malcolm Turnbull, Research Fellow, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

2 thoughts on “Mainstream schools need to take back responsibility for educating disengaged students”

  1. I am so thrilled to read this article as both a teacher and foster carer and social worker. My arguement for many years now has been while there are alternative options for mainstream schools that they will continue to opt out of educating children with trauma histories or students who are struggling academically. This countries political direction for many years has been focussed on greater academic achievement in the belief that this is solely what will increase our wealth and development completely forgetting about the impact that poor education has on individuals and then the ripple effect it has on that individual, family and community. This is inparticular regard to the mental health and long term employment of young people and then the spin off consequences.
    This process starts as soon as the young person and often their family start to feel and see the shift towards them that they are not “typical”. This is usually happening at the start of adolescence a significant period of difficulty for any young person trying to both belong and also find their identity to suddenly be exited out of schools and told ” this is not the best setting for you” , or ” this program would suit your learning better”. The stigma for these students and their families is huge. When asked what school do you go to immediately tells the listener ” oh you were kicked out of school” or ” you struggle with school”. For one of my children she thinks she is dumb and that now she is at a special school. I try to re- narrate and say ” you are at a school that wants you and understands and supports you and will support you to learn”. At least my child is at a school providing this after I looked into alternate settings and fought for her to get into a “school” after instead being offered “Oakwood sessional teaching ( lets fudge the numbers as to how many students are not in school) three weeks into year seven.
    I am so angry about this topic and the lack of responsibility, open exclusion practices and stigma that has been perpetuated on many thousands of young vulnerable developing people in Australia. As main stream schools are both federally and state government managed and the ideology is developed also at both levels this is a significant community responsibility. Schools are a reflection of community attitudes but can also be in reverse an institution to help shape community and its attitudes. Therefore as a society we are practising exclusion. Inclusion means to make adaptations so that everyone has the same opportunities to participate and that everyone is included and feels like they belong and are valued and accepted.
    I would like to see more educating of the teachers In the community on understanding the impacts of trauma ( including exclusion) and effective teaching practises to support students learning. I would also like to see flexible options remaining inside mainstream school sites that are fluid and allow students to remain with their peers and participate in whole school events and still have a sense of belonging and connectedness.

  2. This is a wonderful discussion. We really do need to take responsibility for not engaging students in the right ways. A large part of this comes down to our education system stifling creativity and being geared towards creating obedient factory workers, as this was what was needed in the era when our education system was formed. Today these traditional disciplinarian frameworks of rote learning are not going to serve young adults as well as using their creativity and imaginations.

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