One-size-fits-all school leaving age is harmful to some pupils

At what age should Australian children be leaving school? Torres21/flickr

Parents, teachers and politicians have for years spoken of the importance of keeping young people in secondary school. Completing that final year has become the benchmark of attainment for students, but in many cases it’s simply not the best idea. Treating them as individuals and not as statistics will improve the level of education overall.

For the past 30 years, governments have aimed to increase the proportion of young people who continue from Year 7 or 8 (the start of high school) through to Year 12. Australian Bureau of Statistics data show that this ‘apparent retention rate’ to Year 12 increased dramatically from 35% of high school students in 1975 to 72% two decades later, in 1995. Since then, however, it has levelled off at around 75% despite the efforts of policy makers.

In 2009 all the state, territory and federal governments through the Council of Australian Governments (CoAG) agreed to a set of new policies in the National partnership agreement on youth attainment and transitions. The federal government called this a “Compact with Young Australians”. It contains a mixture of ‘carrots and sticks’ to keep young people in education longer and reduce youth unemployment. In particular, a new target was agreed: to raise the Year 12 (or equivalent) attainment rate from 83.5% in 2009 to 90% by 2015. To reach the target CoAG has calculated that 92,527 additional young people need to achieve the Year 12 or equivalent qualification. Importantly, the CoAG attainment target does not require young people to stay in school beyond Year 10. It measures attainment for the group of 20-24 year olds. A young person who leaves school and returns a few years later to complete Year 12 or a Vocational Education and Training (VET) Certificate therefore is counted as meeting the target.

Education, especially at primary and high school levels, is a public good. That means all young Australians are entitled to enjoy its benefits - not just for economic outcomes (such as increased chances to find work) but also for the inherent personal and social benefit of learning. A policy or practice that enables more young people to successfully complete higher levels of schooling therefore is worthwhile.

Concern, therefore, is not with the basic principle of trying to raise educational attainment, but with some of the ways in which both education policy and school practice go about that. One issue is with the measurement used for the new CoAG target. The reason it calculates current attainment as 83.5% - much higher than the 2009 retention rate of 76% - is not just that actual attainment at age 20-24 is a different statistical measure than retention from year 7/8 through to 12.

More disturbingly, the CoAG target includes in its “equivalent” to Year 12 attainment the completion of a Certificate II in Vocational Education and Training. Most educators would agree Certificate II is equivalent to Year 10, not Year 12. For example, the TAFE qualification that is an alternative to Year 10, the Certificate in General and Vocational Education (CGVE), is a Certificate II. Has CoAG moved the goalposts to make it more likely it will achieve its target? Including the option of a vocational equivalent, rather than having to complete Year 12, is laudable - but it should be set at Certificate III level.

Another major concern is with the way the CoAG target and ‘Compact with Young Australians’ have been portrayed - in the media, in schools, and even in statements from state governments. A common ‘shorthand’ has been to refer to the relevant policies as a ‘raising of the school leaving age’. This is not only wrong - it has the potential of being counterproductive or even harmful.

Many of the quarter or so of young people who leave school before Year 12 have very good reasons why education is not the best place or highest priority for them at that time. Research with early school leavers has shown that some are ‘pulled’ out by the attraction of employment, an apprenticeship or traineeship. Many more, however, are pushed out by factors within the school (conflict with teachers or peers; learning difficulties) or life circumstances (being a primary carer for a parent sibling or their own child; homelessness; illness or disability; poverty).

Talk of a ‘raising of the school leaving age’ may make young people experiencing such ‘push factors’ feel coerced to stay in school. This is not helpful - they may end up officially completing their Year 12 certificate, but since their focus is on survival they may not actually have managed to learn very much. Even worse, they may have developed such negative feelings about learning that they never want to return to education or training again.

Instead of a simple linear sequence from Year 7 to Year 8 and all the way through Year 12, these young people experience side roads, doing u-turns and detours. Such non-linear pathways to educational attainment are too often seen as a problem to be prevented. Instead, detours are inevitable for some young people, and can be more productive than being forced to stay in school. The optimal route from A to B is not always a straight line.

However, this depends on routes back into education being available for early school leavers. Re-entry into school or education is not easy for early school leavers in Australia. In their book Youth, education and risk Peter Dwyer and Johanna Wyn found that for many early school leavers “once they left school their lives became chaotic and their options short-lived or foreclosed”. TAFE Colleges are the best known option - but their adult learning environment does not always suit younger early school leavers. More and more mainstream schools also offer programs to support students to stay in or return to school, but such initiatives tend to disappear when the funding dries up or a champion leaves. Finally, some specialist ‘second chance’ schools exist but they are not always known to the young people who need them and often struggle to source sufficient funding to be sustainable.

Young people are not all the same, their lives are complex, and therefore a ‘one size fits all’ approach cannot work. The best trajectory through schooling will vary from one young person to another - the key is that we need to stop seeing the linear pathway as the best or even the only one, and - as the National Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians puts it - enable: “a range of pathways to meet the diverse needs and aspirations of all young Australians”. The CoAG target and Compact for Young Australians provide the opportunity to support such a range - let’s not waste that by simplistically talking of having raised the school leaving age.

Further reading: Te Riele, K. (2011). Raising educational attainment: How young people’s experiences speak back to the ‘Compact with young Australians’. Critical Studies in Education 52 (1) 1–15 Te Riele, K. (2004). Youth transition in Australia - challenging assumptions of linearity and choice. Journal of Youth Studies 7 (3) 243-257