Hearing the voices of young people - and the programs that embrace them

Hearing the voice of young people

And the programs that support them…

I was invited to speak in two sessions at the 2016 Doing School Differently conference.

  1. Flexible and Alternative Education: Hearing the Voices of Young People.

    This presentation summarised Nick’s thesis examining the lived experience of young people in Flexible Learning Programs.

    Currently over 70,000 young people are educated in flexible learning and alternative education programs across Australia. Despite this, the voices of these young people is largely missing, both from the discourse of education reform and from research.

    This thesis aimed to amplify their voice regarding the impact of flexible learning programs on their experience of education. It explored the views of 13 young people from four different flexible learning settings in Melbourne, Australia through qualitative, in-depth interviews.

    Thematic analysis of these interviews reveals these young people have often struggled in mainstream schools, but key features of flexible learning programs have reengaged them and motivated them to learn again. Important features of successful flexible learning programs identified by this research include welcoming tone and ethos; respectful relationships; tailored curriculum and learning; and flexible structures and environment.

    These features sit within a wider story of the young person’s journey through education. This study concludes that we have much to learn by listening more carefully to young people. It presents recommendations based on young peoples’ views for improving flexible options in the context of policy, practice and further research.

    Key recommendations include valuing student voice; improving transitions from schools to flexible programs; prioritising funding to such settings; sharing good practice; and promoting understanding of ‘caring teaching’ practice. This study is part of a growing body of research on flexible learning programs in Australia and will contribute to future research on similar topics by putting the voices of young people at the centre of the conversation.

    The full document can be accessed by clicking on this link here.

  2. Flexible Learning Victoria: Supporting flexible learning programs to network differently

    This presentation covered the expansion of the Flexible Learning Victoria (FLV) network. In 2013 and 2014 two research reports were published by the BGKLLEN based on data from the flexible learning providers in the southern metropolitan Melbourne region – A Different Journey (Ellum & Longmuir, 2013) and The Next Journey (Waugh, 2014). Both reports identified the need to establish networks or communities of practice that would link providers more effectively. As a result, four organisations (SkillsPlus, Melbourne City Mission, Brotherhood of St Laurence and Narre Community Learning Centre) applied for ACFE funding in 2015 to start a project that lead to the development of Flexible Learning Victoria (FLV) under BGKLLEN project management.

    FLV is a professional body established to support the work of flexible learning program providers in Victoria. Flexible Learning Programs (FLPs) provide educational pathways and support to young people who have experienced barriers to completing secondary education in mainstream contexts, mainly due to social marginalisation or socioeconomic disadvantage. FLV has focused on facilitating formation of new, and strengthening existing, regional Flexible Learning Networks.

    Further information about the FLV network can be found here - https://www.bgkllen.org.au/programs/flexible-learning-victoria-flv/

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.