Hanging out in the streets
These were responses given when pupils in flexischools across Australia and the UK were asked what they’d be doing if they weren’t at this school.
While this may sound dramatic, given the extremely complex and challenging life experiences of many of these young people, dismissing their predictions would be unfair and unwise.
Of course, not all responses have been so vivid. In many cases the answer has been a simple “don’t know”. Whatever their response, it has been quite clear that most of these young people are of the view that they would not be in any form of schooling if not for the existence of their flexischool.
So what are flexischools?
Flexischools are a relatively new form of alternative schooling in Australia. They have grown from just a few community-based projects to one of the fastest-growing type of new schools in Australia.
Just this week I have spoken with three different organisations in the process of setting up their own flexischool. These schools regularly support students from highly marginalised backgrounds, and those who have been failed by or have departed the mainstream school system.
Flexischools come in multiple forms. Some exist as an annex to mainstream government high schools, some are completely independent, some are run by community groups, some by church organisations and some have a philanthropist behind them.
Many of the original flexischools began in parks, shopping malls and community buildings with very little funding, and provided educational support to young homeless people. Now many flexischools open their doors as fully accredited schools.
There is no “ideal” flexischool, but there are core features that run through the vast majority of them: supports to address factors impacting on young people’s lives external to the school, flexibility, and curricula tailored to the needs of students.
Flexischools recognise that many young people have complex lives that make attending school regularly difficult. Thus they implement strategies to ensure that factors that work against young people attending school are mitigated.
These strategies include support with transport, housing assistance, food, crèches, showers, access to legal aid, court support, Centrelink negotiations, links to local Indigenous community organisations, and domestic violence assistance.
These schools are also, as the name suggests, flexible in many of their arrangements. There is a recognition that when someone is homeless, has no food at home or has had a sick child up all night, school and schoolwork become a low priority. As such attendance rules and due dates for assignments are often flexible.
Indeed, it is often the inflexibility of their previous mainstream schools that made life difficult for them.
Learning is still important
While the schools are very student-centred and ensure that the welfare needs of students are met, this alone is not sufficient. The very best of these schools also engage students in learning and provide pathways to employment and further education. Students are engaged through curricula that are meaningful to them, challenge them intellectually, enhance their enjoyment of learning and lift their aspirations.
Mainstream schools are not meeting the educational needs of a significant group of young people, making flexischools necessary. However, there are some inherent dangers in expanding the sector.
It provides mainstream schools with an easy option to give up on students who are deemed not to be fitting in. It can also lead to a differentiated education system where flexischools are constructed as “behaviour” schools. One principal of a flexischool stressed to me the importance of flexischools not becoming “dumping grounds” which students are “embarrassed” to attend. This seems to me to be critical to ensuring their success.
Flexischools have a lot to teach mainstream schools
There are many young people in flexischools who are now fully engaged in learning and yet they either rejected or were rejected by the mainstream.
Mainstream schools could follow the example of flexischools by avoiding rigid rules and expectations which provide no room for flexibility in young people’s personal circumstances, providing access to youth services, avoiding deficit constructions of young people who are not “achieving”, treating every day as a new day in relation to prior behaviours, building respectful relationships among those working and studying within the school, and providing an engaging and meaningful curriculum that builds upon students’ interests and needs.
As a principal once told us, these young people are not disengaged, they have been disenfranchised, and it is the responsibility of all in education to ensure that their right to an education is realised. At the moment flexischools are carrying much of the weight of this responsibility.