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 alternative pathways.

Engagement in traditional education is on the wane. One in five children are opting to leave school early, contrasting with the backdrop of ambitious Federal Government 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, requiring an additional 900,000 enrolments as high school retention languishes at its lowest level in a decade. Of all 15 to 24 year-olds enrolled in education or training, the Productivity Commission reveals a drop from 62.8 per cent to 61.1 per cent, with 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. 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, 79.4 per cent of young people in the Manly area completed Year 12 or equivalent, Northern Beaches Council’s community profile shows, the highest level on the Beaches – but still falling short of government goals.

Disengagement during the peak, bleak COVID-19 years also hit hard with Department of Education (DoE) figures showing that student wellbeing fell to its lowest point since 2015, with only 62 per cent of high schoolers feeling an ‘expectation of success’. Add to this further disenchantment as 10,000 lessons a day in NSW flounder due to raging teacher shortages.

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.

Nicole Cassidy, Owner of Cassidy’s of Harbord Hairdressing and Chelsey McKay, who completed her apprenticeship at the salon

“Our apprentices bring so much joy and excitement to our work environment.” Nicole Cassidy, Harbord Hairdressing

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 and, 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 private. On the gilded Northern Beaches, 37.7 per cent of people now hold a degree, compared to just 15 per cent of those from disadvantaged areas.

Natalie Novotni, NBSC deputy principal

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. As 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.”

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. Courses include everything from accounting to hospitality and animal care, alongside its early school leavers advice scheme. Reaping the benefits is Nicole Cassidy, owner of Cassidy’s of Harbord Hairdressing on Carawa Road in Cromer, who has employed more than 25 apprentices through Northern Beaches TAFE over the last 30 years. The company has won several Northern Beaches local business awards. “Our apprentices bring so much joy and excitement to our work environment with their willingness to learn,” Ms Cassidy tells Peninsula Living. “They all appreciate the guidance and effort that goes into helping them grow and have all gone on to fantastic careers. Watching them grow into passionate, talented hairstylists just makes me so proud,” she adds.

Jason Clare has high hopes for university graduation numbers over the coming decades

“More and more jobs will require a degree in the future and we need these qualifications to have the economic firepower.”

Federal Education Minister Jason Clare

Chelsey McKay left school early to take on her apprenticeship at the salon while studying for a Certificate III in Hairdressing at TAFE Northern Beaches. “I love that I can make people feel good about themselves by giving them a great haircut,” she tells Peninsula Living. “The supportive environment at TAFE NSW means that I can try new techniques in the classroom before taking them to the salon, and I’ve had a number of opportunities to learn first-hand from industry suppliers,” she adds.

While it’s clear apprentices such as Chelsey 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 abolishing the ‘job ready graduates scheme’s’ 50 per cent pass rate rule to qualify for Commonwealth assistance, such as the Higher Education Loan Program, and Links to learning – which funds support for students ‘at risk of disengaging or leaving school early’. Freshwater’s Northern Beaches Secondary College allows students to ‘co-design’ their pathway from Year 10 to 12, with options including TAFE and VET courses to enable students to acquire vocational qualifications while also studying their HSC qualification. “The college’s collaborative approach fosters a learning culture of creativity and choice that enhances educational possibilities for all students,” Natalie Novotni, deputy principal, tells Peninsula Living.

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. Current NAPLAN statistics highlight 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.