A long & happy engagement – latest SMH piece…

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This originally appeared on Pg 17 of the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday 14th May.

Across Australia, approximately thirty percent of students who start high school will go on to university. So what of the other seventy percent – the majority who don’t go to university? Is school adequately preparing students for life outside the classroom, or is it overly focused on getting kids to university, leaving a large proportion of students disengaged with their learning and without the necessary life skills to flourish in the workplace?

Last year the NSW Business Chamber released a report entitled Could Do Better.  It stated, “…young people who do not enter university after they leave school need to be provided with a better preparation for adult life, including their life at work.” Consultation with employers and the community and comparing NSW educational outcomes with Victoria’s has led the Business Chamber to believe that present arrangements fall short of what is needed in today’s economy.

The report calls for a full-scale review of the final years at school including the Higher School Certificate (HSC) that looks beyond assessment and scaling. “It’s time for a review which looks at flexibility in course offerings, including integration of vocational education, and assessment of capacity and competency; not a mere university entrance score.”

As well as flaws in the HSC, NSW Business Chamber Chief Executive Stephen Cartwright says, “Careers advice in schools is at an all-time low. Students are unsure of what they want to do or what the labour market needs.” He says, “Many students have no idea what opportunities are out there.”

Whilst Cartwright believes that the abolition of the school certificate is a good thing, he believes the NSW Government have not gone far enough. “More needs to happen at a system level, rather than just replacing one form of assessment with another. It appears the education system has stopped responding to labour market needs or worrying about those students who are disengaged with their learning,”

The Principal at Cranebrook High School in Penrith, Deb Summerhayes could not disagree more with the Business Chamber. She believes that, rather than criticising schools, it should encourage businesses to help engage students’ interest.

“We need to be creative with the way in which we engage our students at school,” she says. “Businesses can play a large part in this, but all too often businesses don’t seem keen to build on-going relationships with schools.”

Despite this, Cranebrook HS have developed a strong relationship with some local businesses who play an integral role in the delivery of the VET program. It’s a sizable program with approximately 50% of Cranebrook’s Year 11 and 12s studying a VET course.

The program is flexible and includes students attending TAFE, or VET classes at school. Others work one day a week as trainees while continuing to attend school.

One such student is Jeromy Watts, who is in year 12 and works at Penrith Plaza Shopping Centre every Thursday. “The program has made me realize I want to work with people, which is funny because I was always the quiet one,” he says.  “I’ve been able to work on my communication skills and it has also helped me see the relevance of what I’m doing at school. It has made me want to work harder.”

Another student who is benefiting from the flexible programs at Cranebrook is Kiera Larsen-Allan. She attends lessons after school as part of her Business Services Cert II.“I can see how worthwhile it is,” she says. “It’s really going to help me when I leave school and it will look good on my resume.” Kiera recently completed a work placement. “I really enjoyed it,” she says. “I learnt a lot and could relate a lot of what we are doing in the course to the real world. But it was a lot more tiring than school; we didn’t get any recess.”

Summerhayes says there is a belief that the lifting of the school leaving age to 17, has led to many students being at school, “simply because they have to be”. She says the changes made at short notice gave schools little time to react and design programs for year 11 students. “We had a large number of students who would traditionally have left in Year 10 to enter the world or work or training, arriving for the first day of Year 11 to find a largely academic program provided for them by the Board of Studies,” she says.  “As always, schools had to get very creative, very quickly in order to ensure engagement and a relevant pattern of study for these students.”

Summerhayes believes that the programs such as those run at Cranebrook are the key to engaging these students. “The biggest benefit is that it helps us make what we do in school relevant for students,” she says.  “We can show them the connection between what we do here and how important education is for their future.”

However, Professor Margaret Vickers from the University of Western Sydney believes there is a need for a more comprehensive approach than just adding VET courses. Vickers recently completed a three-year research study of the effects of raising the school leaving age and she also had a key role in the writing of Could Do Better. “If you look at those students who go straight to the workforce from school, have they really been prepared for work?” she asks.  “Traditionally, Years 11 and 12 have been skewed towards getting students to university, yet we know that this is often to the detriment of many of our students who don’t see university as a viable option.”

Professor Vickers believes that NSW could look to Victoria for inspiration. As well as having approximately 51,000 students studying for the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE), there are a further 18,700 studying the Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL). The VCAL is a hands-on option for students in Years 11 and 12 that gives students practical work-related experience, as well as literacy and numeracy skills.

“These are students who otherwise would not be in school at all,” Vickers says. “It specifically prepares students for work, but if students wish, down the track they can switch to the VCE, and increasingly more Victorian universities are accepting VCAL as part of their admission process.”

Vickers believes that the NSW Department of Education and Communities has not embraced vocational education as fully as it could and if students do not have access to programs such as those offered at Cranebrook, they miss out. “Rather than VET courses being able to make up part of an HSC, students need a whole new alternative to the HSC – similar to the VCAL.”

Since submitting the Could Do Better report in October 2011, the Business Chamber is yet to receive any official response from the NSW Government, although a spokesperson for the Education Department says the NSW government is currently “considering the scope of reforms needed to ensure the training system delivers the best outcomes for the state.”

In the meantime, perhaps schools could look to Cranebrook for inspiration as to how to reach their disengaged students.

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