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Returning to learning: re-engaging disadvantaged learners in education and training

StudentsEvery year 10,000 Victorian students disengage from the education system.

We know that people who drop out of school often experience multiple and complex disadvantage with an increased risk of involvement in the justice system, involvement with child protection, poor health, being unemployed, being homeless and having mental health issues.

Re-engaging vulnerable learners in education and training brings a wealth of benefits both to the individual and to the wider community. For example, people re-engaging in education are more likely to find work.

Supporting vulnerable learners can also contribute to better housing stability, support good mental health, reduce drug and alcohol misuse and involvement in the justice system, as well as having broader economic benefits.

So, it is disappointing that the Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector is currently failing to provide an adequate amount of funding to support holistic re-engagement programs.

While Jesuit Social Services hopes that the VET Funding Review will improve this situation, we have just released a discussion paper advocating for flexible learning packages to ensure holistic support to disadvantaged learners, support for the pathways and transitions of disadvantaged learners, and targeting communities with multiple and complex needs.

To understand why so many Victorian students disengage from education, we must first understand the diverse range of reasons that can drive students away from school. For example:

  • You could be homeless after being kicked out of home. With no stable base close to school and the pressure to support yourself, getting to school regularly is a challenge.
  • You could have learning difficulties that are poorly supported by the school. Having a learning disability sees you teased by classmates.
  • Experiencing family violence in the home has a traumatic impact on you, making concentration in class difficult and seeing you fall behind at school.
  • You’re newly arrived from overseas and are still learning English. The teachers go too fast for you and you struggle to understand what is happening in the classroom.
  • You’re being seriously bullied and school is the last place you want to be.

Barriers to learning are further exacerbated when people remain out education and training for an extended period of time. People often have low levels of literacy and numeracy due to the missed years of education or difficulty developing these skills initially. Long periods outside of school also deepen anxiety about learning environments and can exacerbate low levels of confidence in the classroom.

Overcoming these low levels of confidence and negative emotions about educational settings is often the most important barriers to address when re-engaging people in education and training.

Research shows that there are four key characteristics that have been proven to effectively engage and support disadvantaged learners: intensive and sustained engagement; support for the wider needs of the learners; flexible learning environments; and pathways into further learning and work.

Through our Jesuit Community College, we see first-hand how re-engaging people in education can help them to steer their lives in positive directions. We will continue to lobby for positive change in this area.

This post is written by Madeleine Calleja, Policy Research and Advocacy Officer at Jesuit Social Services.

Image credit: Southern Arkansas University