Mainstream schools have a lot to learn from the way flexi-schools engage students

By Martin Mills

Everyone has an opinion on why young people disengage from school. The topic arouses significant comment from politicians, media commentators, teachers, teacher unions and parents. Viewpoints include blaming the young person, bad parenting, liberal teachers, lack of discipline in schools, too much focus on testing, the breakdown of society and so on. We have heard it all.

However, when I asked a principal of a major Australian high school about students and disengagement, he told me:

‘I really hate the word ‘disengaged’. Every time I get the chance I say to people like yourself and others that the real word is ‘disenfranchised’, because ‘disengaged’ suggests that it’s the student’s fault when the reality of it usually is that it’s just that the education system doesn’t provide anything that meets the needs of the disenfranchised.’

I think this is an important take on the notion of disengagement. It suggests young people who fall into such a category have been denied their right to an education and, significantly, it is the system’s responsibility to address this injustice.


Over the last few years I have been working with a range of schools, often referred to as flexi-schools. These are independent, attached to a mainstream school or linked to a system, such as Edmund Rice’s Youth, which provide options for young people who have rejected or been rejected by a mainstream school. These schools are often flexible around issues such as uniform, homework, attendance and curriculum, taking into account personal circumstances.

They provide for young people who have been living in poverty, have been homeless, experienced some form of trauma in their lives, become pregnant or a parent, or have been discriminated against because of their race/ethnicity, sexuality and/or appearance.

Students of flexi-schools speak about a lack of flexibility on the part of their former schools to address their complex needs, the difficulties in attending school, about being bullied and about being anonymous within a large mainstream school population. Some of the stories these young people told me are heart-breaking.

On the other hand they note how, amongst other things, their new flexi-school provides a crèche, support with legal aid, with finding accommodation and transport, has a focus on developing relationships between teachers and students, and, importantly, ensures young people have an opportunity to air grievances and have an input into key school decisions that affect them.

They also speak about the ways in which they have been engaged in the curriculum through supportive teaching practices. They suggest within their current schools they are not judged by their perceived abilities, backgrounds, appearances or histories.

What we can learn from flexi-schools

Mainstream schooling can learn much from these schools. First, schools need to acknowledge and address the types of economic difficulties some young people face just to get to school and engage with schoolwork. If students do not know where they will be sleeping that night or where their next meal is coming from it is very difficult to focus on schoolwork, to make wearing the correct uniform a high priority or even to undertake the journey to school.

If a school becomes a place where a young person can access a variety of services, such as medical, social and welfare, as well as being a school, it can mean young people in dire economic circumstances are able to attend. Importantly, school can become a place where they know their difficulties will be recognized.

Secondly, whilst many schools suggest that they value diversity, some diversities are more valued than others. I interviewed a number of young women who said they were encouraged to leave school because they were pregnant and young people who claimed that because of their perceived sexualities they experienced on-going harassment (not just from other students) and leaving school was the only way of avoiding such behaviours.

The flexi-schools I visited all recognize the importance of valuing difference through the provision of specific services, for example, crèches and health support, linking with local communities, including Indigenous elders, developing restorative justice practices, and being non-judgmental about appearances. These are all socially just practices that should form the fabric of mainstream schooling.

And thirdly, the silencing of young people’s voice in schools is one of the most common reasons young people give for leaving mainstream school. The students I spoke to often complained about how they were punished, in a variety of ways, for an act they did not commit. They could not cope with such an injustice and left school. Many flexi schools have a system for ensuing students are able to have grievances heard, are able to contribute to major decisions through community meetings and are invited on to school committees (including interview panels for teachers).

The schools also often have no-exclusion policies. Students understand how democracy works by taking part in democratic practices that underpin the organizational structure of the school. This could surely be one way to encourage engagement, not only in schooling but also in society.

Working on how to incorporate democratic practices into mainstream schooling is a key way of addressing disenfranchisement.

Most importantly, research in flexi-schools tells us many young who were deemed unteachable in their previous schools, when given the right conditions will take up the educational opportunities offered them.

It is worth concluding here with the comments of a retired magistrate who was volunteering as a mentor in one of the schools I visited. He spoke about his first day at the school:

‘I walked up the front stairs and … there were a couple of boys that were in raggedy clothes, the dirty, smelly hair. One of them had bits of steel/metal hanging all out of his face. I was thinking to myself, “Why the hell ‑ what am I doing here?” It was only a couple of years I was sentencing kids like that. And then I came in and ‑ it took a session, probably an hour of talking to these kids and then I started to realise, “Hey, wait a minute, I have pre‑judged these kids.” I have been pre‑judging them wrongly, of course.  So now, I have totally changed the way I think. As I tell the people when they ask me to talk at various places, “it’s really education, not legislation that will fix the problem with the youth”.’

Such an education can only occur when we look beyond the image young people sometimes construct of themselves, and see their disengagement from schooling as a denial of their right to an education. A right that must be addressed.


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Martin is a Professor of Education at The University of Queensland and President of AARE. His most recent book is: Mills, M., & McGregor, G. (2014) Re-engaging young people in education: Learning from alternative schools (Abingdon, Routledge).

In July 2015 AARE is supporting a National Summit  on student engagement, learning and behaviour.