Updated: Aug 17
Despite countless discussions and decades of education policy, Australia continues to face the challenge of empowering the next generation through quality education. Education is one of Australia’s largest export earners, and the sector employs almost one tenth of Australian workers. Yet, our education system is the second most unequal amongst developed countries, and continues to neglect the needs of many Australian youth. Decreasing achievements across the board is one reason for Australia’s decline on the world stage for education. However, more detrimental is the growing social inequality in the provision of educational services. The problem does not lie with students or teachers, both of whom are often labelled as the causes of declining educational achievement. Rather, the issue exists in the striking educational inequality across pre-school, primary and secondary schooling.
But what does this mean? What is it about our system that results in such catastrophic outcomes for so many youth who should be empowered by education?
Disengagement from learning
Our education system is marred by its inability to accommodate students with unique needs, failing to provide individualised support for students who often need it the most. Many of these students are often considered ‘disengaged’.
Disengagement is a multifaceted construct. Students can be disengaged from class, content, school or even the institution of education itself. Disengagement can be emotional, behavioural or cognitive, and it can be measured by indicators such as low attendance, disruptive classroom behaviour and poor school connectedness.
Students from low socioeconomic backgrounds are disproportionately impacted by disengagement from school. Many young people who are disengaged or at risk of disengaging face difficult challenges outside of school, including poor health and nutrition, alcohol and drug use, dysfunctional family environments and crime.
Vulnerable students facing such experiences and even trauma may engage in disruptive behaviours at school, especially when they don’t have the resources and systems to support them through these experiences. As a result, they are often subject to disciplinary action within schools, leaving them trapped in a cycle of disengagement.
Particularly in rural communities, the school system does not enable teachers to provide individualised support to at-risk youth. Even where counselling and psychology services are available, students may remain disengaged as they experience a lack of trust in an institution which fails to understand their experiences and circumstances.
Current practice at schools worsens disengagement through the provision of suspensions.At the moment, students can be issued short suspensions, which can range up to 4 days, and long suspensions, which can extend as long as 20 days. Additionally, students can be placed on rolling suspensions, leaving them out of school for extended periods of time. Erin Strahan, founder of NYEC and has been engaged in community work with youth in Moree for over a decade. Erin recognises there have been instances where rolling suspensions have led to local students attending school for only a few days a term.
While suspensions are intended to have positive impacts, and are often utilised because schools are not equipped to handle certain student behaviours, the negative effects of such suspensions evidently outweigh the advantages of their employment in schools. A 2017 report on behaviour management in schools emphasised that there is no research evidence proving that suspensions decrease disruptive classroom behaviour. Rather, research evidence demonstrates that they can cause ‘increased recurrence of the problem behaviour, lower scores in academic achievement, lower school retention rates, increased likelihood of involvement with the youth justice system, and poor long-term health and wellbeing outcomes.’
Data demonstrates that suspensions are growing at a faster rate than enrolments. However, suspensions represent a policy of direct exclusion from schooling. How can we hope to empower young people to learn and achieve if they are constantly forced out of learning environments? Suspension as a disciplinary tool exacerbates low student engagement, further disconnecting schools from the students who need inclusion the most.
The education system also often fails to accommodate the needs of Indigenous students. School suspensions and low engagement levels disproportionately impact Indigenous students. Our rigid school system fails to accommodate for the needs of Indigenous students, particularly in rural communities. For example, students may have unique family responsibilities, or may be absent from school for days to attend a funeral away from home. Erin says that in Moree, when a student goes away for a funeral, they often find that their class has moved ahead with the curriculum, leaving them behind and sometimes with no individualised support to catch up. With this lack of flexibility, youth often become more disengaged from school.
So what is the solution?
The Department of Education has conducted several reviews and attempted multiple strategies to address the problems that exist in our education system. Most recently, the government has reached a new Closing the Gap agreement and has entered into the National School Reform Agreement, which encompasses 8 reforms aimed at achieving Australia’s long term goals for school education.
However, this is not sufficient. Many children and young people remain unsupported in their learning, whether that be academic, cultural or personal. It is crucial to take a bottom up approach by understanding the needs of young Australians and enabling local programs and organisations in our communities.
If you would like to support community-based solutions that empower young people, donate to Nhuubala Yugal here. Nhuubala Yugal Education Centre offers disengaged youth in Moree with a safe space, where they can build meaningful relationships with peers and mentors, and re-engage in their learning at their own pace with the help of individualised support from mentors.