Five things I've learned talking to young people

Five things I've learned talking to young people

Every day in Australia, thousands of young people complete their education through so-called “flexible” learning programs. For a variety of reasons other types of schooling (at times, several other types of schooling) have not worked for them.  Flexible learning settings are the community’s way of acknowledging that different people have different needs and that we have a responsibility to support all young people to gain an education.

Early in my career, I was fascinated when primary school students were already labelled as the ‘naughty kid’. How had they got to this point so early in life? As my career progressed, I became increasingly interested in kids who end up at the fringes of, and excluded from, our education system.

This fascination soon turned into a research focus. Here’s what I’ve learned from in-depth qualitative interviews with young people accessing education in flexible learning environments, who had previously been marginalised from education.

1.) We need to listen to student voices

The voices of young people are often missing from conversations about education reform. Amplifying student voice can be confronting or challenging for educators. However, the evidence suggests it increases attendance and engagement, particularly for young people at risk of early school leaving. When students feel heard they’re more likely to feel “part of the system”, rather than at the mercy of it.

2.) When students feel cared for, they learn better

A key factor underpinning young people’s success in flexible learning programs is a caring teaching style. This is where teachers displayed both mastery of curriculum delivery and the ability to care holistically for the student.

Approaching students with a caring attitude not only improves a student’s academic learning but helps them develop the skills to form positive relationships in the classroom and beyond. Getting this right in any type of school setting could arguably make the biggest difference in stopping kids from dropping out.

3.) We need to improve school transitions

Shifting between schools and other learning programs are often difficult for young people and their families. There’s often little information to support the transition and significant gaps between enrolments.

Flexible learning programs continue to play an important role in providing for young people with high support needs who have fallen through the cracks. Re-engagement programs are not “outside” the mainstream—they are part of the system.

In an environment in which 10,000 Victorian students are disengaging from education annually, it is critical that students and families have the information and support they need to navigate all parts of the education system (including flexible learning programs) seamlessly.

4.) Higher needs demand higher funding

Students experiencing significant barriers to learning (such as complex trauma histories or significant gaps in educational history) have unique educational requirements.

Successful flexible learning programs have been able to keep students engaged in their education by doing two key things differently:

  • More teachers - a teacher and youth worker work as a team in every class.

  • Smaller class sizes - class sizes are typically capped at 20 students

Naturally, this costs more but has a massive impact on the student's welfare and education. In fact, for every dollar spent, there is a $25 return to society.

5.) Good practice needs to be shared

The flexible learning programs represented in the research understood how to enrol motivate and retain young people. Rather than just ‘putting up with’ disengaged or semi-disengaged young people, the flexible learning programs have been instrumental in turning around attitudes to learning and moving students towards a positive pathway.

The wider education system has something to learn from these programs – for example, structures that ‘flex’ around the students (including discipline processes such as restorative justice), tailored curriculum and learning, and teaching styles that are democratic, interest-based and hands-on.

Too often, different parts of the education system don’t connect, except when a student moves from one to the other. Further cross-pollination between different parts of the system is necessary if all our young people are to meet their full potential.

This article is an excerpt from the full article on the Victorian Council Of Social Services website. View the full article here.