Tens of thousands of students in alternative education

Teenage VCAL (Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning) students Nat (left) and Jordan credit VCE alternative scheme for giving them a future. AAP/Jane Vashti Ryan

More than 33,000 disenfranchised young Australians are taking part in at least 400 “non-conventional schooling” programs, according to the largest ever national survey of students who have fallen out of the regular schooling system.

A report commissioned by the Dusseldorp Skills Forum into alternative education courses in Australia - referred to collectively as Learning Choices - found that programs were being offered at more than 1,200 locations across the country. But the real number was likely much higher, said author Kitty te Riele, an Associate Professor from the Victoria Institute for Education, Diversity and Lifelong Learning at Victoria University.

“We know we certainly did not get all programs. Some states, such as NSW and Western Australia, are underrepresented, as are programs within the governments sector - TAFE/ACE as well as within conventional schools,” Professor te Riele said. “It is safe to state that tens of thousands of young people in hundreds of programs across Australia are engaged in flexible and alternative learning initiatives as part of the Learning Choices sector.”

Many are on the margins, unengaged in traditional classroom settings and overwhelmed by their one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and testing.

They are not easily categorised, and come from a range of good and bad homes - or sometimes no home at all. Some are pregnant, others are recent migrants from a non-English speaking background, and others still have criminal convictions.

The report, Learning Choices: A Map for the Future, states that attendance rates across courses in 2011 varied from 40% to 90%, but that “transition into employment was a common outcome for programs offering higher level qualifications - year 12 and Certificate III and up, with reports indicating between 20% and 40% of graduates moved on to a job”.

Although participation levels varied drastically and outcomes were not rigorously reported, the programs did “very well in giving their students access to qualifications that are now considered the absolute minimum: Certificate I and II, Year 10, and quite a few programs also Year 11 and 12,” Professor te Riele said.

“Most of the students they teach face considerable challenges in their lives, and it is highly unlikely they would have managed to achieve such credentials without the support offered through Learning Choices programs.”

About 60% of programs surveyed targeted a broad range of young people, while about 40% had a more specialised purpose.

The percentage of students who remain in school to Year 12 has stabilised at around 75% since the mid-1990s. The retention rate for Indigenous young people continues to lag well behind at only 45%.

OECD data shows that the secondary school drop out rate is 14.7% for Australia compared to 12.9% for the OECD and 11% for the European Union. More than 16% of 15- to 19-year-olds in Australia are not fully engaged and nearly a quarter of 20- to 24-year-olds: that is not in full-time education or full-time work. “The concern grows when considering those 15- to 24-year-olds who completed Year 10 or below: almost 57% are not fully engaged in the year after leaving school,” the report says.

In 2009, the Australian Federal, State and Territory governments agreed to aim to raise the Year 12 (or equivalent) attainment rate to 90% by 2015. “Learning Choices programs play an important role in enabling these young people to attain Year 12 or equivalent qualifications and thereby assist governments to meet their target,” the report says.

“Learning Choices programs are very successful in engaging young people who are often put in the ‘too hard basket’ in more conventional schooling,” Professor te Riele said. “These young people often are not just disengaged from school but also from society more generally. Learning Choices programs give them a sense of belonging – that kind of social engagement is as important as educational engagement.”

However, many programs had uncertain funding, which meant they ended up losing excellent staff and were sometimes shut down, she said. “Internally, it would help if programs systematically analysed themselves: knowing who their students are, what works for them, and what they achieve. This is time consuming, but real self-evaluation, not just anecdotal evidence, is vital for being able to fine tune and improve a program.”