Australia’s school dropouts: Why we need to intervene

Almost one in five young Australians leave school early, and are likely to earn less, be more dependent on welfare and experience poorer health than those who finish Year 12

Talking about social class and poverty is like being approached on the street by someone asking for money - it can make us feel uncomfortable.

We may feel uneasy acknowledging our own relative positions of privilege in the community. I recall conversations with friends who were shocked by a recent TV program about life “on the fringe” of Australian society. “Is this really happening in Australia?” they asked.

From my position as an education researcher at the University of Melbourne, the evidence of the impact of disadvantage on education is strong. Uncomfortable as it might be, we need to face the fact that a significant minority of Australian young people are falling through the cracks.

Kira Clarke says too many young Australians are not completing school, and multilayered approach is needed to tackle the problem. Picture: Supplied

The dilemma of early school leavers

Within neo-liberal market economies like Australia’s, completing secondary school is usually a minimum requirement for securing a job. School completion is also an increasingly necessary foundation for accessing most types of training and university.

Despite policy targets that aim to achieve universal completion of secondary school, Australia (like many English-speaking and European Union countries) still has a significant minority of young people who drop out.

Current evidence shows that 84 per cent of young people within OECD countries complete upper secondary education. The European Union fares slightly better, with 87.3 per cent of 18 to 24-year olds completing upper secondary schooling.

Worryingly, Australia’s rates of Year 12 completion are lower than both, with average school completion at 83 per cent. At a state level however, completion rates range from 72.8 per cent in the Northern Territory to 90 per cent in the Australian Capital Territory. Over the last 20 years the rate of Australian secondary education completion has increased only marginally.

More worrying than school completion rates are the increases in young people moving from school directly into the labour market. In Victoria and Queensland (the only states with comprehensive post-school tracking) 22.6 per cent and 38.2 per cent of school completers respectively are not continuing in education or training.

Many of these young people face extended periods of employment instability, with limited skill foundation to support their career trajectory.

So, why does this issue persist? Why, in this day and age, with the focus on skills for jobs and the importance of qualifications, do almost one in five young Australians leave school early?

The role of social and economic background

The recent Location, Vocation, Aspiration report from Mission Australia has shone a light on the complex and compounding impact of poverty and socio-economic status on educational attainment and outcomes.

The report details findings of more than 13,000 young people who participated in the 2014 Survey of Youth. They show that, far from fulfilling an egalitarian mythology, there remains a particularly strong link between a young Australians’ socio-economic background and their chances of completing school and moving into stable employment.

The survey shows all young people, regardless of location or social background, aspire to career success and financial security.

However, those from low socio-economic backgrounds are less likely than their more affluent peers to see things like owning their own home or being financially independent as highly likely. Reinforcing the findings of other recent research, this survey also indicates disadvantaged young people are more likely to see getting a job as of major importance and are less likely to plan to go to university.

This focus on jobs over study amongst poorer young people can be problematic, leading to lower education attainment, lower earnings over a lifetime, an increased likelihood of welfare dependency and vulnerability in the unforgiving labour market.

It can also have a flow-on effect in other areas of their lives, particularly in health and well-being. Research has shown that early school leavers may experience higher rates of drug and alcohol use, greater levels of depression and social isolation, and greater likelihood of teen pregnancy.

The Mission Australia survey also revealed that pooreryoung people were less likely to report “feeling part of the community”. While the difference was only slight (4 per cent) this is a concerning piece of evidence. Social connectedness and a sense of belonging are important factors in supporting health, wellbeing and education engagement.

Facing up to the social class challenge

The challenge facing teachers, schools and education systems is how to support the educational pathways of diverse groups of young people. Young people’s understanding of the Australian education and employment landscape, depends on the experience of their parents and family.

The role of parents and family is a key piece of the puzzle when it comes to addressing school dropout and education pathways. Parental education influences student aspirations and how they see their opportunities and options. It is a strong predictor of educational choices and outcomes.

Studies of effective strategies for promoting school completion emphasise the need for a multilayered approach. Effective school completion programs and post-school education pathways include both student-focused strategies and strategies targeted to groups seen as particularly in need. The success of these strategies is often dependent on a school culture and school leadership that values and celebrates vocational and university pathways equally.

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