Managing student behaviour

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

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.

Shocking evidence of US-style racial bias in Australian schools

Australian research is almost silent on how disciplinary practices in our schools are affected by racial bias. 

In the United States there is ample evidence that children from minority groups are more likely to labelled as having behaviour disorders. They are also more likely to be diagnosed with having a mild intellectual impairment, learning disabilities or emotional disturbance, and placed in special education classes.

Research from the US consistently shows that African American, American Indian and Hispanic students are more likely to be overrepresented if they are:

  • male,
  • from a low SES background,
  • live in a high-density urban area, and
  • where there is a high proportion of students from minority groups.

Similar trends have been noted in the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Canada.

The lack Australian research on this issue is not because we somehow have escaped the problem but because Australian education systems are remarkably eclectic in the ways in which they report data.

Sophisticated longitudinal and geographical analyses tracking trends in diagnosis and placement are currently impossible. We remain ignorant of magnitude, cause and effect. But there are indicators and if you can see the tip of an iceberg, logic suggests that you would make a serious effort to alter direction.

What DO we know?

The NSW Department of Education and Communities (DEC) publishes an extensive array of educational data. Whilst they are riddled with inconsistencies and blind-alleys, DEC does at least publish some statistics disaggregated by Indigenous status.

These data show that Indigenous students are significantly over-represented in long school suspensions (5-20 days) and in separate special educational settings. DEC doesn’t draw that conclusion themselves but it is clearly evident when Indigenous students make up only 6.3% of total enrolments in NSW government schools in 2012 but account for:

24.4% of long-suspensions,

14.6% of enrolments in primary school support classes,

12.6% of enrolments in secondary school support classes, and

12.8% of enrolments in special schools.

These numbers tell us far less than we need to know. For example, is the disproportionate over-representation of Indigenous students in school suspensions and special educational settings increasing or declining over time? Are there discrepancies that might indicate institutional bias or is Indigenous over-representation in these data simply a reflection of social disadvantage?

I looked for evidence of trends emerging. What I discovered has made me believe urgent attention is needed.

Let’s start with the use of suspension: the strongest predictor of later special education placement and school failure.

Long-school suspensions: 2008-2012

Indigenous students accounted for 6.3% of total enrolments in NSW government schools in 2012, but received 24.4% of long-suspensions (averaging 11.8 days), up from 22% in 2008.

They were 5.1 times more likely to receive a long-suspension than non-Indigenous students (up from a risk of 4.3 in 2008), and 6.1 times more likely than non-Indigenous students to receive a repeat long-suspension (no change from 2008).

There was a 35.1% increase in the number of Indigenous students receiving a long-suspension between 2008 and 2012.

This is almost twice the increase in long-suspensions received by non-Indigenous students.

This is a serious problem because suspension is an ineffective and often harmful response to student disengagement that does nothing to address the underlying causes of disruptive behaviour.

As I mentioned earlier, suspension is also the most robust predictor of special education placement and later school failure. If that’s true, then high rates of suspension may be impacting Indigenous enrolments in special education. Let’s have a closer look at this part of the iceberg…

Enrolments in separate special educational settings

longitudinal analysis  of enrolments in separate special educational settings (1997-2007) found that Indigenous enrolments in support classes and special schools are increasing faster than enrolments of non-Indigenous students, and faster than Indigenous enrolments in mainstream.

In other words, the rise in Indigenous special education placements cannot be explained by Indigenous population growth.

This research also found that Indigenous students were already over-represented in separate settings back in 1997, and that the degree of over-representation has increased significantly since. Particularly worrying was the finding that the disproportionate over-representation of Indigenous students had accelerated in the 6 years since the Review of Indigenous Education (2004).

Enrolments in NSW government special schools

So, we know that Indigenous students are over-represented in special schools and that their enrolments are increasing relative to non-Indigenous students. This doesn’t appear to have stirred much in the way of public outcry, so I investigated whether Indigenous disproportionality differs by special school type.

There are three broad types of special schools in the NSW government school sector:

  • Traditional special schools enrolling students with moderate to severe intellectual impairment, physical and sensory disabilities, and autism;
  • Mental health special schools enrolling students with emotional disturbances, severe psychiatric disorders, or behaviour disorders; and
  • Juvenile justice special schools within juvenile justice detention centres.

In 2009, traditional special schools enrolled just over two thirds of special school students, mental health special schools enrolled almost one quarter, and juvenile justice special schools enrolled just under 10 per cent.

Indigenous representation varied significantly by school type with 1 in 4 kids in mental health special schools and almost 1 in 2 in juvenile justice special schools identifying as Indigenous. Less than 6 from every 100 students in Traditional SSPs were Indigenous.

This means that Indigenous disproportionality in special schooling is explained by over-representation in particular types of special schools; namely mental health special schools and juvenile justice special schools.

Now, I know that still might seem unremarkable to some, so I looked a little more closely at mental health special schools. There are two broad types in this group:

  • special schools for students with verified mental health issues, and
  • special schools for students with disruptive behaviour.

The former requires a confirmation of disability (under the category of mental health problems) prior to entry, the other doesn’t.

Indigenous students accounted for 18.8% of enrolments in the type that requires confirmation of disability and 27.1% of enrolments in the type that doesn’t.

In my field of research, that’s more than the proverbial tip of an iceberg.  It’s the equivalent of a smoking gun.

At the very least, these trends tell us that our school disciplinary practices are affected by racial bias and that we need to more carefully examine how discipline is applied, to whom, what for and in what ways.


Linda GrahamAssociate Professor Linda J. Graham is a Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology. She is grateful to have received funding for her research into educational responses to children who are difficult to teach from the Australian Research Council (DP110103093; DP1093020) and the Financial Markets Foundation for Children (2013-030). She is presenting this research at the NSW Aboriginal Education Council’s 50th Anniversary Conference, Saturday August 30, 2014.