Alternative schools are under-valued and under-funded

Australia’s alternative school system is an undervalued piece in the puzzle to solving the total disengagement of at-risk youth, according to an Australian Catholic University education academic.

Flexible Learning Options (FLOs) are the ‘safety-net’ schools which currently provide education to around 70,000 young Australians who have disengaged from mainstream schooling and are facing potential welfare dependency and substance abuse.

Australian Catholic University lecturer Dr Kimberley Wilson said Flexible Learning Options are located in every state and the territory and were first established in 1985 in Queensland.

Dr Wilson recently co-edited a book, Gauging the value of education for disenfranchised youth, Flexible Learning Options,with James Cook University co-editors Sue McGinty, Joseph Thomas and Brian Lewthwaite.

As part of the book’s qualitative component, 157 teachers, parents, young people and other staff from partner sites were interviewed.

“Despite their 33-year history, most people are not aware of FLOs and the important role they play,” Dr Wilson said.

"These alternative schools are supporting young people who have fallen into the ‘too hard basket".

“They may be grappling with a variety of very complex problems including: being in state care; being young parents; intergenerational poverty; victims of school bullying; mental health issues; homelessness, and/or have alarmingly low literacy levels,” she said.

A student from Blue Gum Flexi (not its real name) in Victoria is quoted in the book as saying without an FLO to attend she wouldn’t be at school, “I wouldn’t have even started my Year 12. I’d be smoking drugs still, to be honest, and be probably doing nothing with my life.”

Dr Wilson said, “While there are continued calls in the media for responses to increases in youth crime and delinquent activity, there is very little awareness about the dedicated work of already established programs like FLOs.”

“The many benefits of FLOs include regular attendance at school (where once there was none), attainment of a qualification, reducing or stopping substance misuse, improved parenting skills, life satisfaction, improved life skills, finding employment, improved literacy and better peer relationships.

Students have told us these alternative schools make them feel valued. Their self-worth improves and their risk-taking behaviour tends to decrease.”

Dr Wilson added the evidence showed that for every dollar spent on an FLO education, a significant amount is returned to the economy – yet many FLOs are forced to fight for funding.

“In effect, the FLOs are turning troubled young peoples’ lives around. They have actually proven to be the educational safety-net our modern society most urgently needs,” she said.

“Australians need a much better understanding of the role of FLOs in supporting young people to reach their full potential.

“These alternative schools are diverting at-risk young people from the potential pathways of welfare dependency, anti-social activity and poor health outcomes.

“Don’t judge disadvantaged young people or let them be forgotten – they deserve a future and these alternative schools are giving them one.”

In 2017, the reported Non Indigenous retention rate to year 12 was 86 per cent, compared with the Indigenous retention rate of 62.4 per cent (source: Australian Bureau of Statistics).

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