Why is school not working for so many young people?

There is a growing number of young people giving up and dropping out of school in Australia.

Kids as young as eight are switching off during these fundamental school years and missing out on huge chunks of their education.

The reports keep piling up, painting a disturbing picture of a growing disadvantaged group of young people slipping through the cracks.

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But are we getting any closer to understanding the problem?

There can be no doubt that in Anglo-Western countries like Australia, the UK, Canada and the US young people who are being failed by the system are no longer a small disaffected minority of students.


Research shows the education system fails one in four young people in Australia – a figure that has remained stuck for the past two decades or so. In some states this figure is as high as 50%.

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If we don’t act soon, then this group of young people may rapidly escalate.

A few years ago some American commentators referred to the problem in the US as the “silent epidemic”. And they were talking only about the tip of the iceberg — the young people who had given up and dropped out of school.

The even larger problem may lie in the vast number of young people who barely endure school, or who engage with it only episodically, if at all.

It is probably no exaggeration to say that we are in the throes of a social epidemic that is going on largely unnoticed and un-debated, and is silently endured by those most affected.

1. Current solutions too simplistic.

A common thread runs through the dominant explanations of the problem — which amount to “deficit” explanations.

That is to say, there must be something missing or wrong with the lives of these young people, their backgrounds, families, educational histories and communities that have to be remedied.


Having located the “problem” as being to do with some kind of alienation/disaffection from school, the solutions reflect these presumptions:

What remains obscured in these accounts and their supposed solutions is the fact that they are simplistic or one-dimensional explanations for a complex multi-layered social problem.

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Glaringly absent from most of these accounts is any extensive explanation or worldview of the problem from the young people themselves, their families, or from their more thoughtful teachers.


2. The reasons young people give.

Here are some not-so-conventional explanations mostly revealed by young people themselves.

The already disadvantaged increasingly struggle to see the purpose of schooling. This increasingly includes even the middle classes as young people completing university are finding that the prospects of getting a job suitable to their fields of study is difficult if not bleak. Two in three respondents (in a graduate survey) are concerned about getting a career-related job.

They find schools increasingly irrelevant to their lives.

With social media becoming such a prominent part of young lives, and popular culture everywhere, schools can appear to some young people to be dinosaur institutions.

Research shows that if young people don’t find schools a hospitable place, they will develop their own identity outside the school.

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3. Schools struggle to understand working-class kids.

Schools are middle-class institutions and, as such, have difficulty understanding why the working class have so much trouble fitting in.

The argument they give is that it’s the young people who have to change, not the school.

Continuing to have individualised policy solutions to a historical inter-generational issue will not work.

Privatisation, testing, competition and school choice do not improve the educational trajectories of disadvantaged young people.

Removing “trouble makers” may seem to make schools tidier places for parents exercising school choice, but it does nothing to alleviate the lives of those pushed even further to the educational margins.

private schooling
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Dropping out of school should be seen as a form of resistance by youngsters who feel education has little respect for their lives, families, backgrounds, experiences, even their strengths, and aspirations.

Maybe it is time we started exploring why school is not working for increasing numbers of disadvantaged young people, by adopting a sociological rather than a psychological perspective — one that is more attentive to the accounts of young people.

Do you think the Australian education system is failing our kids?

John Smyth, Visiting Professor of Education and Social Justice, University of Huddersfield; and Emeritus Professor, Federation University Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. You can read the original article here.