With the number of young people choosing to leave school early sitting at a 10-year high, Catherine Lewis investigates the catalysts behind this growing trend and the alternative paths many are taking.

Engagement in traditional education is on the wane, with one in five opting to leave school early. The decade-high rate sits against a backdrop of ambitious tertiary targets of university degrees for 55 per cent of all young people over the next two decades, up from the current 36 per cent. “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 Federal Education Minister Jason Clare.

It’s a monumental ask, one requiring an additional 900,000 enrolments as high school retention languishes at its lowest level in a decade. The Productivity Commission recently revealed 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? Rewind to 2010, when the school leaving age was raised from 15 to 17 in a bid to boost opportunities and lifetime earnings, and many schools – particularly in lower socio-economic areas – bowed under reshaped curriculums and vast vocational education and training (VET) rollout investments, such as commercial kitchens. Throw in the poor attendance that comes with forced learning for longer, and the exodus began. Fourteen years on, 69.8 per cent of young people within the Northern Beaches Council (NBC) area completed Year 12 or equivalent, NBC’s community profile shows – well below targets – with 20.7 per cent leaving school at Year 10 or below.

Disengagement during the peak, bleak COVID-19 years and disenchantment as 10,000 lessons a day in NSW flounder due to raging teacher shortages also hit hard. Department of Education (DoE) figures show that student wellbeing has fallen to its lowest point since 2015, with 62 per cent of high schoolers feeling an ‘expectation of success’. With just one counsellor now allotted per 500 students, government cost cutting has ‘failed students and teachers when it comes to wellbeing,’ says former NSW Teachers Federation President, Angelo Gavrielatos, while academic struggles create a dangerous undercurrent from as early as kindergarten. One third of Australia’s four million school children are ‘not where they need to be’ in reading, finds the Grattan Institute, at an estimated cost to the economy of $40 billion, with current NAPLAN results revealing a nine per cent shortfall on national minimum numeracy and literacy standard targets set a year ago.

Michael Lucic, owner of Logic Electrical, took on his apprentice, Charlie, six months ago

The temptation of a paycheck in a tight labour market sways the majority – 26.8 per cent – of early school leavers, especially those in lower socio-economic areas. In turn, DoE says that HSC completion results for Indigenous students slumped to 38 per cent. Of the 25,398 early school leavers across NSW in 2022, 75.1 per cent were from public schools, with just 12.7 per cent from the private sector. On the Northern Beaches, 37.7 per cent of people now hold a degree, compared to just 15 per cent of those from disadvantaged areas.

While keeping kids at school may be Australia’s economic dream, for many, consignment to a classroom is a nightmare. 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. Psychologist Danielle Buckley, who has worked with young people via ASA, says: “Everyone is different and we need to make sure our youth aren’t just pushed towards one option.”

Apprentice Charlie Parker is learning practical and people skills at Logic Electrical

The hottest ticket is TAFE, the vocational education and training provider, which enrols more than 430,000 people annually, many from the age of 15, in everything from accounting to hospitality and animal care, alongside its Early School Leavers Advice Scheme.

Reaping the benefits is Michael Lucic, owner of Collaroy-based Logic Electrical, who took on apprentice Charlie Parker, 18, six months ago. “I was working at Charlie’s family home when he was eight and he said he wanted to be an electrician, so I told him to call me in a few years,” laughs Mr Lucic. Fast forward a decade, and Charlie has been learning on the job while attending TAFE one day a week. “Charlie is dedicated, eager and is crucial to my work, as electrical jobs often require two pairs of hands,” says Mr Lucic, adding that their friendship has made work ‘more enjoyable’.

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

Charlie attended Narrabeen Sports High before deciding that school ‘wasn’t his thing’ and left in Year 11 to pursue his trade. “I always knew what I wanted to do,” Charlie says. “My apprenticeship has allowed me to develop good people skills, as well as seeing what life as an electrician is like day-to-day,” says Charlie, who would eventually like to start his own business.

Alternatives to traditional school include distance learning, tertiary courses such as childcare at a private registered training organisation, or a part-time apprenticeship with schooling, which blends paid work, training and studies.

While it’s clear that young people such as Charlie are thriving thanks to the springboard into the world of work, government fears of future unemployment, social exclusion and poverty linked to leaving school early remain. Exacerbating these concerns are recent Australian Bureau of Statistics figures showing that 80 per cent of degree-educated people were employed in 2023, 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.

Mona Vale’s Pittwater High School is ‘working collaboratively’ with families to find ‘alternative pathways’ for disengaged students, or those that are ‘struggling to meet academic outcomes,’ Principal Alison Gambino tells Peninsula Living Pittwater. “Examples include apprenticeships or TAFE enrolment in carpentry, mechanics or beauty therapy, with one of our students recently receiving a scholarship with Ausgrid through the Bright Spark apprenticeship program,” she says.

It’s clear that no matter how hard Australia pushes formal schooling, a one-size-fits-all approach is not the silver bullet for either education or retainment. Instead, a multi-pronged approach is needed, one that invests heavily in the VET system to boost engagement from day one of high school, as well as honing support to stamp out educational inequalities – with current NAPLAN results highlighting a gap of four years-worth of learning between privileged and disadvantaged students. After all, forcing young people to stay in school 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.