With government tertiary education targets soaring and high school retention levels falling, Catherine Lewis investigates why one in five young people are now opting to leave school early in favour of alternative paths.

As Federal Education Minister Jason Clare calls for dramatic increases in the number of young people enrolling in university over the coming years, high school retention levels languish at their lowest point in a decade. “More and more jobs will require a degree in the future and we need these qualifications to have the economic firepower to make Australia everything it can be,” says Minister Clare, setting targets of university degrees for 55 per cent of young Australians by 2050, up from the current 36.

It’s clear that engagement in traditional education is on the wane, with recent Productivity Commission data revealing a drop from 62.8 per cent to 61.1 in 15 to 24 year-olds enrolled in education or training, and the highest drop -82.8 to 81 – among 15 to 19 year-olds. So why the pass on class? Reshaped school curriculums and vast investment in facilities, such as commercial kitchens, to cater for new vocational education and training (VET) offerings rocked schools – particularly those in lower socio-economic areas – when the leaving age was changed from 15 to 17 in 2010.

Behavioural issues, truancy and poor attendance went hand-in-hand with forcing some to learn for longer. Add to this disengagement during the peak, bleak COVID-19 years, and disenchantment as 10,000 lessons a day in NSW floundered due to raging teacher shortages, and the exodus began. Fourteen years on, in North Sydney, 81.2 per cent of residents graduated with Year 12 or equivalent, compared to just 59 per cent in the economically diverse Western Sydney and 64.5 per cent in Greater Sydney, finds North Sydney Council’s community profile.

Student wellbeing continues to be a catalyst, with recent Department of Education (DoE) figures showing that wellness levels have fallen to their lowest point since 2015, with just 62 per cent of high schoolers now feeling an ‘expectation of success’. Cost cutting, especially across public schools, has seen expert support shaved, with only one counsellor now allotted per 500 students, well short of what is required.

Academic struggles create a dangerous undercurrent from as early as kindergarten, with one third of the country’s four million school children ‘not where they need to be’ in reading, the Grattan Institute reported, warning that this could lead to an economic shortfall of more than $40 billion over the coming years. The most recent NAPLAN also revealed a nine per cent chasm between national minimum numeracy and literacy standards and targets set just one year ago.

By far the largest contingent of early school leavers – 26.8 per cent – are wooed by the workplace, with the temptation of a paycheck in a tight labour market proving hard to resist, especially for those in disadvantaged areas. HSC completion results for Indigenous students slumped to 38 per cent, says the DoE and, of the 25,398 early school leavers across NSW in 2022, the vast majority -75.1 per cent -were from public schools, with just 12.7 per cent private. Within the North Sydney Council area, 59.5 per cent of residents hold a higher education degree or equivalent qualification, compared to just 15 per cent of those from disadvantaged areas.

It’s clear that holding onto high school students is Australia’s economic golden ticket, but for many, additional enforced years of formal schooling is in stark contrast to what they want for their future. A job, apprenticeship or traineeship is a hugely positive step for these students, families and schools, with Apprenticeship Support Australia’s (ASA) skillsroad youth census revealing higher levels of ‘optimism and resilience’ among this demographic than any other post-school pathway.

“The vast majority of early school leavers are from public schools, with just 12.7 per cent from private.” NSW Department of Education

From the age of 15, students can enrol in vocational education and training provider TAFE, alongside more than 430,000 others each year, to study everything from fashion to mechanics and hospitality, alongside receiving support via the ‘Early school leavers advice scheme’. An introductory pre-apprenticeship or traineeship is also on offer, to allow people to gain a taste of a trade or industry minus any fees, before committing.

One North Shore apprentice who left school in Year 10 to pursue a career in the kitchen is Will McLoughlin. Will, now 18, says he has ‘pretty bad’ ADHD and was having issues at school, so he started helping out in his parent’s restaurant, Public Dining Room, down at Balmoral. “I kind of liked it, so it just became a thing,” says Will, who was 15 at the time. He then started there as an apprentice chef, completing one day a week at TAFE in a hospitality course, working 30 hours at the restaurant.

Will McLoughlin started as an apprentice chef at Public Dining Room

“School isn’t for everyone,” Will explains. “I learned more in the first year of my apprenticeship than most of my years in high school,” he says. “I’ve learnt how to think out of the box in the kitchen, how to be organised and how to think for yourself.” Other skills include how to manage people and money, Will adds – skills he says can be transferred to other pathways outside of the kitchen.

Far from his ADHD being an impediment to his career, Will says being a chef actually helps keep him in check. “Kitchens are always busy, so it keeps me busy and I don’t find myself ever getting bored. There’s just too much to do and it has to be done ‘now’ and be perfect. I don’t really get time in my mind to wander off or get distracted.

“I find I like the pressure. It’s different to the pressure of a school assessment, which I could not cope with.”

After three years as an apprentice, Will becomes a fully qualified chef in July, completing his training at Ormeggio, an Italian seafood restaurant at The Spit in Mosman. The young chef describes kitchens as ‘like a family’. “We all help each other.”

Overall, Will would tell other young people considering an apprenticeship to ‘go for it’. “I’m very happy I made that decision. I’ve got a fair bit of savings and I reckon it’s worked out better than finishing school and wasting my time.”

Willoughby-based youth early intervention program Streetwork has helped many young people find their path, including Isobella, 17, who left school early following years of learning difficulties and depression. Weekly mentoring sessions and psychologist support enabled her to apply successfully for a TAFE hairdressing apprenticeship, proving Streetwork founder, Peter Hobbs’s belief that ‘What is needed is support -on the ground -when young people first show signs of disconnection’.

TAFE enrols more than 430,000 people each year across programs including aviation and hospitality

Other post-school education avenues for young people include distance learning or tertiary courses such as childcare or animal care at a private registered training organisation.

“I learned more in the first year of my apprenticeship than most of my years in high school.” Apprentice chef Will McLoughlin

While young people such as chef Will are thriving thanks to the springboard into the world of work an apprenticeship can bring, government fears of future unemployment and poverty linked to leaving school early remain. This is especially in light of Australian Bureau of Statistics figures showing that 80 per cent of degree-educated people were employed last year, compared to just 58 per cent with Year 11 or below.

Enter a retention-boosting raft of measures, including the roll-out of the Links to Learning scheme, which funds support for students ‘at risk of disengaging or leaving school early’.

Once in tertiary education, reforms made by the previous Federal Government in 2021 mean that university and TAFE students no longer need a 50 per cent pass rate to stay in their course or qualify for Commonwealth assistance, such as the higher education loans program.

At Mosman High School, Principal Susan Wyatt says that while ‘the majority’ of students progress to university, those that choose VET or tVET are ‘passionate about their chosen courses such as nursing or animal studies.’ “Many of our tVET and TAFE students use the skills they have gained to find part-time work while attending university,” Ms Wyatt adds.

It’s clear that a one-size-fits-all approach is not the silver bullet for either education or retainment, no matter how beneficial for Australia’s economy. Rather, heavy investment in the VET system to boost engagement from the very start of high school, alongside striving to stamp out educational inequalities, as current NAPLAN highlights a vast gap of four years-worth of learning between privileged and disadvantaged students. Consigning our young people to a classroom in order to hit retention targets flies in the face of why people are educated in the first place – to give them the options and autonomy to make their way in the world.

Additional reporting by Michelle Giglio