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Passport to a Positive Future – a roadmap to re-engage early school leavers

Deborah Fewster is the Head of Policy, Advocacy and Government Relations at Melbourne City Mission. In this guest post she outlines the work being done at Melbourne City Mission’s Melbourne Academy to support students to remain engaged in education.

While mainstream secondary school education and Vocational Education and Training (VET) prepares the majority of Victorian students well for social inclusion and labour market participation, there is a group of younge people with multiple and complex needs who require  different and more intensive models of support.

Every year 10,000 young people are leaving secondary school without completing Year 12, according to Victorian Department of Education and Training data.  Of the 7,000 who move into the VET system immediately after disengaging from secondary education, a staggering 6,000 go on to disengage from VET after just one year.

At a time when the general unemployment rate is at its highest in 13 years – and there are areas with rates of youth unemployment as high as 17 per cent – it’s clear, as Mark Wooden from the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research told The Australian recently, that the era when you left school at 15 is well and truly gone. You’ve got to finish school…”

But what does that look like for Victoria’s highest needs learners – say, a young person who is experiencing homelessness, has a two to three year gap in their attendance history, and has complex trauma?

Since 2001, a range of policy measures have been implemented to minimise educational disengagement, optimise school completion and promote effective post-school pathways for young Victorians.  Whilst a primary focus has been on retaining students within the mainstream school system, education policy has recognised that issues such as homelessness, family breakdown, poverty, mental health issues, low self-esteem, previous low attainment, or behavioural issues can compromise a student’s ability to learn within school settings.

Community VCAL programs delivered by non-school Senior Secondary Providers, such as Melbourne City Mission’s Melbourne Academy, provide options – and open new pathways – for students who are at risk of disengaging from education, or who have already disengaged.

Over the past five years, the Melbourne Academy has grown from a pilot program with a single classroom for 20 students, to nine classrooms across seven sites and around 250 enrolments in 2015. Melbourne City Mission is now one of the largest community providers of VCAL in the State.

In 2014, in the context of this growth trajectory – and in light of the complex educational, social and health issues that students present with – Melbourne City Mission wanted to independently test whether (and how) students are ‘better off’ as a consequence of attending the Melbourne Academy.

Researchers from The Victoria Institute at Victoria University were commissioned to evaluate the Melbourne Academy during the 2014 school year, when the program comprised six classrooms across six sites (one each in North Fitzroy, Melbourne CBD, South Melbourne, Sunshine, Braybrook and Maribyrnong) and had 98 formal student enrolments.

The research, led by Associate Professor Kitty Te Riele and launched by the Deputy Premier and Minister for Education, The Hon. James Merlino MP, found the vast majority of Melbourne Academy students were ‘better off’ across a range of academic, social and community indicators:

  • Academic achievement – Despite significant educational barriers, 65 per cent of the cohort completed all or part of their VCAL certificate in 2014, and many worked towards VET certificates. Staff, students and parents agree that most students would not have achieved these qualifications without the opportunity to attend the Melbourne Academy.
  • Attendance and participation – 83 per cent of Melbourne Academy students agreed they were more likely to come to school. Over the course of the year, the proportion of students who were ‘engaged’ increased from 44 per cent to 76 per cent in terms of class participation and from 59 per cent to 78 per cent in terms of satisfaction in their own work.
  • Aspiration and motivation – aspiration is pivotal for enhancing young people’s access to post-school pathways. In the student survey, 86 per cent listed working in a job that interests them as their future aspiration and 83 per cent indicated that they were attending the Melbourne Academy to gain their VCAL in order to achieve their goals.
  • Connections with peers and community – a key component of connection to the Melbourne Academy is having family, friends and other significant people supporting and encouraging the young person to do well. In the student survey, 93 per cent indicated they got on better with teachers at the Melbourne Academy; 75 per cent indicated they are with friends at the Melbourne Academy; and 90 per cent indicated their family encouraged them to do well.
  • Social and personal wellbeing – The Engagement Matrix used in the research found significant increases in student confidence (an increase from 54 per cent to 85 per cent) and resilience (from 41 per cent to 68 per cent). Students’ wellbeing is enhanced through increased feelings of pride, self-belief and ownership, and reduced anxiety and depression. 

Features of the Melbourne Academy model that the researchers identified as contributing to positive student outcomes include:

  • Keeping classes small (the student:staff ratio was 14:1 in the largest class in 2014). This lays the foundations for strong staff-student relationships.
  • The teacher-youth worker pairs at each site are the “greatest asset” of the Melbourne Academy. Their complementary expertise enables the provision of holistic support to young people.
  • Combining high expectations with flexible, individualised support is hard work for staff, but pays off as it facilitates success for students.
  • Co-location of Melbourne Academy sites with a range of other youth and community services extends the range of professional expertise available to support young people at short notice and close proximity.
  • The duration of the Melbourne Academy (one to three years, longer than many other flexible learning programs) offers students the stability and time to achieve valuable credentials.
  • Young people are warmly welcomed at the Melbourne Academy without exception: regardless of their circumstances and regardless of their formal enrolment status. New students can join a classroom immediately, rather than waiting until all paperwork has been processed and funding is received for their enrolment.

At a time when youth unemployment is high and demand for flexible learning programs is on the rise, The Victoria Institute evaluation of the Melbourne Academy contributes to the broader public policy conversation about the social and economic cost of early school leaving and the role of community sector providers in the education system, and contributes to the developing evidence base about education re-engagement.

Both the full report and research summary of “Passport to a Positive Future – an evaluation of The Melbourne Academy” by Kitty Te Riele, Merryn Davies, Alison Baker and Luke Swain can be accessed online.

Hard copies of the report – and further information about Melbourne City Mission and the Melbourne Academy – can be obtained from Steve Maillet, Director, Early Years, Education and Employment, Melbourne City Mission via email smaillet@mcm.org.au