Almost one in five 15 to 19 year olds in Australia don’t complete secondary schooling. This rate varies across the country, but is higher in socio-economically depressed areas, higher in the country than the city, and higher for boys than girls.
So, where do these young early school leavers go?
Almost two-thirds enter Vocational Education and Training (VET) to complete their initial education and get the skills they need to access employment. The problem is, over 40 per cent of these young people are also dropping out of their VET courses.
The reasons why so many young people leave VET are varied and complex, but are related to existing levels of disadvantage, and seem to be consistent with the reasons they leave school early. They may be experiencing personal challenges at home, struggling to engage with the VET environment, or they may find they don’t have all the skills needed to complete the course, and decide it is not for them.
As part of our new research into the issue, we used an innovative multidimensional framework to go beyond the ‘hard data’ and actually speak with young people, the VET teachers and the youth workers supporting them, in several disadvantaged communities. We wanted to understand what was shaping how these early school leavers engaged with VET at three different points in time – prior to enrolment, at enrolment and during their training.
What we heard highlights the need to ensure the VET system, which is ostensibly oriented towards training adults, is provided with the funding, specialised resources, networking and integrated systems to also attract and retain this group of young people.
To look at what we learned, let’s consider the VET experience through the eyes of a composite of young early school leavers. Let’s call her Emily.
Prior to enrolment
Emily left her rural high school during the first term of Year 11. After leaving school, a broad range of people and institutions shaped her consideration of doing a VET course. Of particular importance were her parents, older siblings, and friends.
In Emily’s case these social networks played a positive role in encouraging her consideration of VET, but this is not always the case. These immediate social networks can also have a dissuading role if parents or friends have a negative perception or limited understanding of VET.
Another source of information about VET for young people like Emily, is the information provided through their schools and from the providers themselves. Unfortunately, there was also a strong message from young people, trainers and support staff that information from schools and providers that shape awareness and understanding of VET is thin and hard to access.
So, Emily has decided a VET course is for her and she goes to enrol at her local provider. For Emily, leaving school had a lot to do with struggling with the work and lacking confidence in her literacy. This is a common challenge for early school leavers.
Difficulty reading, writing and interpreting materials means that the process of enrolling in her VET course is overwhelming for Emily. It reminds her of school and feeling ‘not smart enough’.
Provider and support staff working with young people like Emily also describe enrolment processes as complex and burdensome. Many told us that early school leavers need to be supported through the process of enrolling for the first time. This might mean filling out forms with them and talking them through the paperwork. But this is a time-consuming process that currently lacks funding.
Retention during training
Emily has made it through the enrolment process and started her course. In her first few weeks she finds there is far more reading and writing than she expected. For early school leavers like Emily, adequate wellbeing support is crucial.
Our research found that early school leavers are most likely to sustain engagement in VET programs when language, literacy and numeracy, learning needs and wellbeing supports are integrated within their program, rather than added on independently. At the moment, the availability and standard of such supports in the vocational training system is uneven.
Addressing the needs of early school leavers
If we know the risks and challenges faced by young people like Emily, what can be done to to make sure they get the most out of VET?
Our research underscores how important it is to recognise not only the needs of those students already engaged in VET, but also anticipating and catering for young people who are contemplating VET and approaching a provider for the first time.
In particular, guidance about post-school pathways during the early years of high school needs to be strengthened, so young people have consistent and on-going access to reliable information about education and training options.
To ensure that young people who would benefit from VET aren’t being scared away, there needs to be more user friendly and sophisticated processes of orientation, enrolment and induction. We came across some great examples of new innovative processes, but these must be collaboratively shared across the sector.
VET has a great deal to offer early school leavers and is a crucial ingredient in building their educational foundations for life and work. Our research shows that strengthening awareness of VET, simplifying the enrolment processes, and funding coherent and integrated support for wellbeing are all needed.
Whilst some of these findings are consistent with previous research and may seem obvious, it is clear that many young, disadvantaged Australians will continue to ‘miss out’ as long as funding and resourcing for these strategies remains a low priority among some VET providers.
But if we have evidence of what needs to be happening, why should Emily and others like her miss out?
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