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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Effective strategies to increase school completion

Leela Darvall
Manager, Youth Transitions Division, DEECD

Today’s young people need higher levels of education and training than previously required to make successful transitions from school to work. Australian and overseas research shows that students who do not complete Year 12 or its equivalent are more likely to become or remain unemployed, have lower earnings and, over the course of their lives, accumulate dramatically less wealth. The problems faced by early school leavers will be exacerbated as employers seek a more highly skilled workforce to cope with changing industry needs and will be deepened further by the onset of uncertain economic times.

In 2008, the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development in Victoria commissioned Associate Professor Stephen Lamb and Dr Suzanne Rice from the University of Melbourne to undertake research to identify effective strategies to increase school completion. Their research involved a national and international literature review of school initiatives that were found to reduce rates of early leaving. They also surveyed Victorian schools that have either achieved much higher than expected completion rates, or have been identified as particularly innovative in improving levels of student engagement.

The Effective Strategies Report

The Effective Strategies to Increase School Completion Report that resulted from this research outlines successful strategies used at a number of Victorian schools to engage students and encourage them to complete their secondary education.

The research found that the key to school engagement and completion was a supportive culture or climate. A supportive school culture involves responsiveness to individual student needs, a shared vision across the school community and high expectations of staff and students. The research found that such a culture can be established through a series of targeted interventions and programs underpinned by a school-wide commitment to continuous improvement and success for all students. The targeted interventions include student-focused strategies such as student mentoring, programs to improve students’ social skills, and case management and targeted assistance for skill development among low achievers.

The interventions also include school-wide strategies such as familial-based forms of organisation like mini-schools; team-based approaches to teaching, learning and pastoral care; early intervention to support literacy and numeracy skills growth; initiatives to improve connections with parents; high expectations of attendance and behaviour; and strong VET options, accompanied by intensive career planning and early development of vocational pathways.

The research found that schools with the greatest success in improving student retention combine a range of these strategies, and constantly refine approaches as the needs of students and parents change.

The research also found that the most effective programs appeared to reduce students’ social isolation and strengthen the relationships between students, parents, staff and the broader community. Effective programs gave students real power and responsibility, demonstrating trust in them. Successful programs also gave students tasks with immediate, tangible benefits, such as project-based learning and vocationally oriented coursework. They catered to diverse student needs through school programs and curricula. They also addressed poor achievement through remediation programs and professional development for teachers, and by placing strong teachers with low achievers. Student attendance and personal obstacles to school retention were addressed through welfare support, case management, attendance programs and financial assistance.

The Guide to Help Schools Increase School Completion

Associate Professor Stephen Lamb and Dr Suzanne Rice also developed a Guide to Help Schools Increase School Completion that complements the report. The guide outlines how a school can assess current strategies and provides practical information on how to implement the successful ones. Topics in the guide include developing a supportive school culture; implementing change; and evaluating the impact of change. Links to references, resources and external agencies that can assist with strategies to increase school completion are provided.

Included in the guide is a helpful ‘toolbox’ that provides surveys, focus group questions and an exhaustive spreadsheet of resources to assist with strategic planning.

The effective strategies in the report can be used by schools to address risk factors identified in the Student Mapping Tool, a software program that uses data from CASES21 (the Victorian Government's school administration database) to identify students who display risk factors common among early school leavers. The Student Mapping Tool allows schools to map, monitor and evaluate the success of interventions used to re-engage and support such students. The Student Mapping Tool can be downloaded free of charge by Victoria's government schools.

The report and the guide support the Blueprint for Education and Early Childhood Development. Released by the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development in May 2008, the blueprint highlights the importance of every child having the opportunity to succeed in education regardless of their location or socio-economic status.

The report and the guide are available online at http://www.education.vic.gov.au/sensecyouth/careertrans/EffectiveStrategies.htm


Subject Headings

Retention rates in schools
Educational evaluation
Educational planning
Secondary education
Senior secondary education
Vocational education and training
Career education