New research for NSW Department of Education looking into early school leavers in NSW identifies opportunities to promote minimum school attendance as a social, economic, and legal imperative.

SGS estimated as many as 7,200 recent early school leavers aged between 15 and 21 years old in NSW in 2021. Early school leaving (ESL) is an enduring policy challenge for Australian education and is linked to a raft of poorer outcomes later in life, including unemployment, social exclusion, and poverty.

While the suite of risk and protective factors for early school leaving is well established, effective mechanisms for identifying and re-engaging students at risk of early leaving are unclear.

Our research highlighted several complicating factors:

  • Service providers often interact with ESL at the ‘pointy end’ when managing other risks to their physical safety or housing security is the priority.
  • Even when ESL is detected early, an ‘at risk’ designation triggers stigma that may cause a young person to resist re-engagement opportunities.
  • Particularly in regional and remote areas, it is common for structural barriers, such as the availability of transport from school to home or alternative education delivery options, to limit the ability of young people to bounce back from even minor learning setbacks.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated disengagement among some students and disrupted levels of engagement between schools, parents and families.

Our team made five recommendations for coordinated case management to reduce early school leaving rates as young people navigate the important transition to adulthood:

  1. A dedicated case management service to assist ESL in education, training and/or employment be established by the NSW Department of Education.
  2. The features of the case management service are designed by a multidisciplinary team, with representation from teaching staff, social service agencies and staff, among others, to reflect the diverse factors and experiences of early school leavers.
  3. A consistent process for identifying and monitoring early school leaving is established at the school level.
  4. The NSW Department of Education commits to standardising ESL data collection in NSW.
  5. A post-implementation of the proposed case management service will be undertaken to strengthen the evidence base around the core factors shaping student re-engagement.
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