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Early school leavers at risk


11 June 1999

ISBN 0 87397 556 1


The key problem explored by this research is whether initial vocational education and training and associated support services assist early school leavers to negotiate an effective transition from school to adult roles. The report also examines the gap between provision and demand for VET and associated services barriers, to full access and use of the available programs and services by the at-risk early school leavers.


Executive summary


Vocational education and training (VET) should provide a vital link between school and work. However, for many early school leavers it does not. This represents a significant problem, because a failure to access initial vocational education and training systems can exacerbate the disadvantages of early school leavers, and increase the risk of their long-term dependence on the welfare system. Many early school leavers fall into the 'at-risk' group and fail to secure full-time employment in a competitive teenage labour market. In addition, they must often negotiate a path through a range of Commonwealth, State, local council and community institutions and services.

Recent research has shown that the teenage labour market has undergone major structural change since the mid-1960s. This includes a virtual collapse of full-time employment opportunities for 15?17 year olds (particularly for females), very significant increases in educational retention and participation rates, and concomitant increases in teenage part-time employment, particularly for full-time students. The research hypotheses are concerned with the complexity of youth labour markets and the social, economic and political changes which are reshaping our lives and society.

In response to these pressures and the effects of structural change, continuing reform of post-compulsory education and training is exerting a powerful transformative influence on VET. The changes include the introduction of competency-based training and assessment, increased emphasis on workplace learning, the introduction of vocational programs into schools and the piloting of the key competencies, and the development of the modifications of the entry-level training system including New Apprenticeships.

Yet it is a cause of serious concern that despite increased education and training participation rates, and despite the changes to general and vocational education, there still exists a significant group of teenagers who have been identified as 'at risk' in the transition from school to work. It has been estimated that some 15 per cent of 15?19 year olds fall into this category. The experiences of early school leavers are not generalisable: they do not constitute a homogenous group, and their experiences upon leaving school are variable. The circumstances that influence their decision to leave school prematurely include socio-economic status, Aboriginality, ethnicity, geographic location, parenthood, and familial situations. Furthermore, in all of these cases young females tend to be relatively more disadvantaged than their male peers.

Thus the key problem explored by this research is whether initial vocational education and training and associated support services assist early school leavers to negotiate an effective transition from school to adult roles.

This 'problem' is one which needs to be explored in several ways. It raises questions of which 'groups' of young people are at risk and what we mean by the transition to adult roles. It also invites us to assess to what extent youth services are being accessed by those school leavers most in need of them, and what kinds of changes are needed to improve these services so that they can facilitate young people to make their transition.

The problem also needs to be understood and researched with some understanding of the attempts of social policy to respond to the problem of youth transition. (Appendix 1 provides this policy perspective.)

Research on VET for young people

Access to VET could, and arguably should, bridge the transition from school to work, laying the foundations for secure employment, economic independence and active citizenship. School-to-work transition and youth labour markets have drawn significant attention and concern in the international arena with the rapid changes to patterns of employment due to the internationalisation of labour markets and economies. However, the place and role of VET and related services in the transition phase from school to work have not been adequately analysed.

A number of studies and research projects have addressed some of the issues identified in this project. The areas of research are:

  • the actual VET programs and courses that are available to different population groups, including many which relate specifically to equity
  • the availability of associated social welfare and community services for different population groups, including at-risk young people
  • people's subjective experience of the VET and labour market programs
  • longer-term school-to-work transition studies based on tracking a substantial database

However, these areas of research have tended to remain relatively discrete. What this project seeks to do is to bring together analysis of people's subjective experiences of VET and related services, in their transition from school to employment, with analysis of VET programs and related social welfare services. The gap between provision and demand for VET and associated services, and possible barriers to full access and utilisation of the available programs and services by at-risk early school leavers, will be examined with a view to identifying policy and administrative changes which could improve access.

Given the rapid and extensive changes that have taken place in VET over the past decade, it is important to undertake research which achieves a special aim. This is to combine an understanding of the actual programs, courses and services as they exist in technical and further education (TAFE) institutes and in the community with an understanding of the extent to which those programs, courses and services are known about, how they are seen and how they are used by early school leavers. Only by bringing these together can we develop a more adequate understanding of the transition process and more adequate and effective programs, courses and services.

The potential benefits of the project are emphasised by the increased emphasis being placed on New Apprenticeships as the major vehicle for school-to-employment transition, and the reduction in availability of a number of labour market programs. The role of TAFE in New Apprenticeships and the pressure to provide for early school leavers could well increase. This project gives a valuable insight into the role VET plays in early school leavers' transition to employment and into how that role could be made more effective.

Research approach

Thus the aim of the project was to generate a multi-perspective understanding of the school-to-work transitions experienced by early school leavers in two areas of the Central Coast of New South Wales, with a particular emphasis on the role played by VET and VET providers in their transition.

In this study, documenting the experiences of early school leavers themselves is core to the research purposes, in particular gathering data from early school leavers about their experiences during the initial transition phase. These data are the touchstone for then examining information about the role of VET and associated services in the transition from school by early school leavers and to identify strategies to improve its accessibility and effectiveness for those young people.

The research thus aimed to contribute to the theoretical debate about, and understanding of, young people s transition from school to employment, and the role of VET in ensuring equity of access and provision for disadvantaged young people. This debate has led the research to make a number of key assumptions about the study in a number of ways:

  • recognising the complexity of young people's transition to adult roles as they balance work and study as well as manage other aspects of life
  • the need to examine the options for young people by understanding transition from their perspectives, as revealed through face-to-face interviews
  • recognising that early leavers' options are, to some degree, set by where they live, so that the research is also a focussed regional study
  • recognising that when young people exercise VET options they are influenced by a range of considerations including family, income support, employment, housing, health and other issues

The literature on young people suggests research needs to come to terms with the complexity of their transition to adult roles . This complexity is a reflection of different aspects of life that have to be negotiated. These include their experiences of schooling, their entry into the youth labour market, the attitudes and practices they encounter in job-seeking and employment, and the services available to help them deal with the difficulties they encounter in negotiating their adult identities. For this reason, the research highlights the perspectives of the early leavers revealed through face-to-face interviews.

It is also important that research recognises that these experiences are, in part, shaped by a given context. The young people live in a particular region of New South Wales, go to school, look for work and seek out vocational options in particular localities that are more or less limiting of those options.

It was the experience of the researchers that examining the complex factors which influence current practice and performance at the local level was the most effective way of learning more about how VET providers should respond to the needs of young people in transition. VET is not provided in a vacuum, but in context, and it is crucial in understanding young people's transition experiences to see VET courses in relation to other options they may exercise. It is also vital to understand how these options are influenced by such things as what courses are available, the nature of local employment, job-seeker services and so on. Strategies for the improved co-ordination and delivery of initial VET services need to be proposed in this light. Similarly, it is a false reading of young people s situations to think that the provision of VET services can disregard their needs for income support, accommodation, counselling, health and other information.

Thus the research addressed a number of research questions:

  • What are the circumstances, characteristics and aspirations of the early school leavers on the Central Coast?
  • What are the transition experiences of early school leavers at risk within the first 12 months of their exit from school? How do these reflect the nature of VET and employment opportunities for teenagers in the study area?
  • What are the linkages between the programs and services in the area, in terms of co-ordination, accessibility, flexibility, retention rates and outcomes? Where are the gaps and overlaps in service provision?
  • Do the VET services in the two areas match the needs and opportunities in these areas? And how far has the reform of VET had an effect on the services for young people?
  • What reforms and changes might be considered, from broad policy formation to local service delivery, to meet more adequately the VET and transitional needs of this target group?

A regional study also makes it possible to see how national and State policies are worked out at the local level. This point is crucial to understanding how policy can make a difference and contribute to a more inclusive, cohesive and fair society. By focussing on the local level, it is possible to gain some ideas of how well services for young people are co-ordinated.

The research was oriented toward the development of theoretical understandings of the transition process for 'at-risk' young people, and of the role of VET in the transition of young people from school to employment. It especially aimed to contribute to a greater understanding of the issues facing equity of access and provision for disadvantaged young people.

Project collaboration

In April 1997, an opportunity arose to develop collaboration with the Central Coast Youth at Work project being conducted by Richard Sweet of the Dusseldorp Skills Forum and the Central Coast Area Co-ordination Committee. Their project was investigating the extent of support services available to young people at a local and regional level. It focussed on improving the employment, education and training options for young people living in the Gosford and Wyong local government areas (LGAs) by developing a range of strategies. These include small business mentoring, a post-school destination survey, structured work placements, community service awards, supervisor training, career education, youth mentoring and 'breaking the cycle' programs (Teese et al. 1997).

Aligning the two studies had a number of benefits, mainly that collaboration would result in a deeper and richer regional study of early school leavers in Australia than either study could alone produce. The Early Leaver at Risk project was assisted by gaining access to resources and local information and expertise (e.g. databases). There were a number of further modifications of the study resulting from this change:

  • adding a fieldwork component focussing on the perspective of local businesses and employers
  • dividing the sample of early school leavers into two groups, in order to compare the experiences of those who make a successful transition from school to work/training and those who do not
  • expanding the study area to include the whole Central Coast by adding the Wyong LGA to the Gosford LGA, and not going ahead with the inner-west Marrickville LGA
Research procedures

The methodology used in the research considered the impact of VET, associated services and policy on young people making the transition from school to work. The research comprised a diversity of approaches, in contrast to most similar studies which have concentrated on one level of analysis or a single methodological approach.

  • A review of selected literature (chapter 2) grounded the research in a theoretical, historical and policy context.
  • A social policy perspective (appendix 1) examined the recent history of Commonwealth and State initial VET policies and programs for young people leaving school.
  • An analysis was conducted of the Central Coast region using 1996 census data and TAFE participation patterns and labour market conditions facing teenagers in Gosford and Wyong LGAs. The analysis provided a social and economic context for the empirical study.
  • Interviews were conducted with early school leavers. A sample of 40 young people were interviewed, who had left school in Year 11 before completing their high school certificate (HSC), and lived in the Gosford and Wyong LGAs. One group of 20 consisted of early school leavers who have not accessed employment and/or training within the 6?12 months since leaving school. The other was a comparison group consisting of 20 young people who had successfully gained employment and/or training within the 6?12 months since leaving school. The early school leavers were contacted and invited to participate with the co-operation and assistance of staff involved in the relevant areas. These included TAFE, labour market programs (LMPs)/ New Apprenticeships programs and refuges. Advice was also provided by school principals with the assistance of the Department of School Education (DSE).
  • Telephone interviews were conducted in order to generate data about co-ordination issues. These were held with local service providers including VET workers, school career counsellors, and officers from the Commonwealth Employment Service (CES), youth access centres (YACS), the Department of Social Security (DSS) and the Department of Community Services (DOCS). In addition, interviews were conducted with refuge workers and other relevant professionals operating in the Gosford and Wyong LGAs. Issues arising from the interviews with the young people were discussed from the service provider perspective. It was also an opportunity to assess the perceived impact, positive or negative, of the VET reforms as identified by practitioners.
  • Telephone interviews with local businesses and employers were used to generate knowledge about their perspective on issues concerning services, training and employment for early school leavers. The data looked at the extent of knowledge held by the business sector about local services, the closeness of links with schools, the needs of employers, problems and experiences in the local area.

Throughout this report the term 'VET' is used to include the full range of employment-oriented, education/training-based transition programs and services available to early school leavers.


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Supporting documents