This research focused on one of the most vulnerable groups in Australia’s vocational education and training (VET) system: young early school leavers. While a quarter of those undertaking government-funded vocational training are aged between 15 and 19 years (NCVER 2017a), many early school leavers are unfortunately disengaging from their vocational training before completion. There are also many early school leavers who do not access or enrol in vocational training as an alternative to school completion. The issues of disengagement, non-completion and disinclination to undertake vocational training were central themes in our research into the factors enabling engagement with vocational training.
The most recent data on completion rates for young VET students (25 years and under) without prior post-school program completion shows a completion rate in 2015 of 58.3% (NCVER 2017b). Despite the NCVER data projecting this is an increasing rate of completion from 2014 (54.9%), promoting access to and completion of VET programs for early school leavers has assumed an added urgency. This is due to both the increasingly hostile labour market confronting young people and the relative advantage those with post-secondary school qualifications have over those whose education has ended prematurely.
Predominantly qualitative, our research was conducted in a total of 16 selected sites spread across three states (Queensland, Tasmania, and Victoria) that were able to provide access to disadvantaged urban, regional, and rural communities. Direct consultations were undertaken with adults working to deliver accredited training; adults in community youth organisations that support disadvantaged young people; and young people themselves.
The research affirms the need to conceptualise engagement as an unfolding series of encounters — or potential encounters — between a young person and the vocational training system over time, one that can be shaped far in advance of the young person’s (potential) formal commencement. It proceeds on the assumption that a young person’s knowledge and experiences prior to their encounter with vocational training plays a very significant role in determining their (potential) training outcomes. We thus look within and beyond the confines of the training setting to identify the factors and strategies that can enhance participation and engagement.
Guiding the data collection and analysis is a framework that blends socio-ecological and temporal analyses. In particular, it considers the factors at play prior to commencement, at the ‘moment’ of enrolment and, subsequently, during the actual training experience.
Prior to enrolment
- The vocational training sector is mysterious to many early school leavers: the costs associated with training, the range of course and qualification options and subsidy and entitlement regimes often appear complicated and confusing to young people. During this phase they often lack the information, skills and resources required to make informed decisions and may need targeted support and guidance.
- Many people and institutions across a spectrum of social networks and relationships help to establish the foundations for early school leavers’ positive engagement prior to their first encounter with the training system. Of particular importance are those within their immediate circle — parents, carers, older siblings, and acquaintances — who play vital roles in enabling the young person to consider formal engagement.
- Effective pathways guidance (for example, from schools, training providers, employment services and community services) and accessible youth support services can assist early school leavers to recognise and consider the merits of training programs.
- Although the vocational training sector sometimes presents a daunting institutional interface to young people, there are indications that vocational training is held in high regard by many disadvantaged young people.
- Enrolment processes, and in some cases large training institutions, can be intimidating and unsettling. Many young people in the early school leaver group lack the social skills, confidence and motivation needed to initiate, complete and commence formal enrolment procedures.
- Streamlined, personalised and supportive processes can assist young people to remain engaged in these critical first encounters.
- For training organisations, the information gleaned from prospective students, particularly in relation to their wellbeing and learning needs, preferences and aspirations, is vitally important for assisting the young person to orient themselves to the new setting and to cope with the course content.
- Early school leavers can have numerous temporary or ongoing support needs that may go unrecognised and unmet. These needs include housing and financial stress; degraded social networks; low language, literacy and numeracy skills; physical and mental health concerns; and limited access to transport. During busy enrolment processes, training providers can struggle to identify and address these important needs.
- Programs that incorporate structured workplace experience and learning, and a ‘hands on’ approach to training can support the engagement of early school leavers.
- Access to safe, reliable and timely transport services to training settings impacts significantly on young people’s engagement, particularly in regional, rural and outer urban locations.
- Early school leavers are most likely to sustain engagement in contexts where language, literacy and numeracy, learning needs and wellbeing supports are provided. Currently, however, the availability and standard of such supports in the vocational training system is uneven.
- Both direct provision of support and effective processes for referral to external and specialised support services are often lacking.
Conclusion and recommendations
Engagement is a process that involves a number of stages, with numerous socio-ecological factors having a slightly different impact at different engagement ‘moments’. The engagement of early school leavers in vocational training can be well supported when:
- training providers offer programs and services that flexibly meet the learning needs of early school leavers, including enrolment processes attuned to the identified needs of this group, more convenient timetabling, a greater emphasis on lower-level and foundation-level qualifications, improved wellbeing and learning supports, financial aid where needed, and ongoing access to careers guidance
- training providers offer flexible pathways towards a wide range of qualifications of interest and relevance to young people, particularly in regional, remote and disadvantaged regions
- training providers adopt creative local options for improving transport access by young early school leavers, such as car-pooling, buses or via timetabling arrangements
- training providers, their peak bodies and governments make available to schools and the broader community high-quality information about the VET system, its programs and support services, including vocational guidance, and links with local employers
- policy-makers and community and education leaders embrace ‘wrap around’ and coordinated service delivery models to promote vocational training as a key part of local and national social infrastructure; infrastructure that works with and for young people, employers, health services and the local community. Presented in this wrap around context, VET may less often be viewed as a destination for ‘low performers’.