Rise in Victorian students quitting school before year 12

The proportion of Victorian students withdrawing from school before year 12 is at a five-year high, with almost one in five male students and one in 10 female students exiting before their final year.

School leaders and education experts said a strong jobs market was driving more young people to leave school early, but that a post-lockdown failure to re-engage with education was also behind the trend.

Victoria’s declining school retention rate presents a challenge for the Andrews government, which set a target as part of its Education State agenda to halve the proportion of students leaving education during years 9 to 12 by 2025.

The proportion of students dropping out of high school in Victoria is at a five-year high.Credit:Arsineh Houspian

The retention rate for years 10 to 12 has fallen from 89.1 per cent in 2018, to 85.6 per cent this year.

This year’s drop, from 87.9 per cent to 85.6 per cent, was the steepest in the past five years.

The figures, based on the Department of Education and Training’s February school census, reveal that male students and students in the state school system are statistically far more likely to withdraw before year 12 than female students or those in non-government schools.

Dale Pearce is the principal of Bendigo Senior Secondary College, which, with more than 1700 students, is Victoria’s largest specialist school serving years 11 and 12.

The school unexpectedly farewelled more than two dozen students over the summer break because they had found jobs or apprenticeships, he said.

“In late January we had 27 of our students going from 11 to 12 we were planning for, but who weren’t here on day one because they had picked up work, and we know we have got students who have left us during the school year.”

In previous years, when youth unemployment in Bendigo was high, many of those students would have remained in school, even if they were unhappy, Pearce said.

“It doesn’t matter where you look, everyone is struggling for workers, so if a student is marginally connected to schooling, three or four years ago they may have hung in because there wasn’t an opportunity outside of school, now there are opportunities.”

Schools are not permitted to release students until age 17, and principals must sign off on each exit. Pearce said he was comfortable releasing a student who had found a sustainable pathway.

Some students, though, exited the system despite a school’s best efforts, by disengaging and dropping out of contact. Pearce said COVID-19 and its associated lockdowns had made it harder for some students to re-engage with school.

Jim Watterston, dean of the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Graduate School of Education, and author of the 2019 report Those Who Disappear: The Australian education problem nobody wants to talk about, said the biggest problem with students exiting the school system is that they are no longer tracked.

“The danger of kids being released from school, if they’ve sought permission, to go into some kind of trade or apprenticeship is that we don’t know how long they last,” Watterston said.

Students may leave for justifiable reasons, but if something goes wrong, such as losing or leaving their job, there is no obligation for the employer to monitor them.

“It has been a problem for decades,” Watterston said.

“Kids leave school supposedly because they have got employment or long-term training and find within a week or two that it doesn’t suit them, or they’re struggling or can’t get up on time every day, and then they are lost.”

Watterston’s report estimated that as many as 50,000 students were lost from the education system in Australia. He said that three years on, post-pandemic, that figure could have doubled.

Trent McCarthy is chief executive of the Central Ranges Local Learning and Employment Network, and said there are towns in regional Victoria where employers have been literally recruiting at the school gates.

“We have the perfect storm of local employers recruiting students directly from school, families in crisis and workforce shortages,” McCarthy said.

The best way to keep more students engaged in education is through a focus on local connections and social interactions, not on academic performance, he said.

The Department of Education and Training said Victoria’s retention rates had remained stable given recent society-wide challenges.

“Victoria’s retention rate is one of the strongest in the country, and has remained stable over the past three years given a very strong youth labour market, the impact of changed patterns of migration and the challenges of the pandemic,” the spokesperson said.

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