Tags: Curriculum Manager | School Leadership & Management | Teaching & Learning Coordinator | Teaching and Learning

Access to vocational education has been found to be a key factor in reducing disaffection – but only if fully integrated into the curriculum and delivered as a mainstream option available to all.

This is just one of the key findings of a review of research in nine European countries by National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) to identify common causes of disengagement from learning.

Reclaiming those disengaged from education and learning: a European perspective reveals that certain features of the education systems in operation in the different countries were seen to exacerbate disengagement with school – the researchers identify these as well as highlight strategies in combating disaffection that were effective in different national contexts. The countries involved were: Austria, England, Belgium (Flanders), Hungary, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Switzerland and Wales.

Core considerations Disengagement triggered one of two reactions – fight (behavioural problems) or flight (non-attendance). Via two expert meetings with representatives for the education systems of the nine countries involved, the researchers Sally Kendall and Kay Kinder were able to pinpoint three key areas that curriculum managers need to focus on to tackle disengagement:

  • maintaining and monitoring strategies with a focus on pupil attendance and behaviour in school
  • non-curriculum support that focuses on providing direct support for students’ emotional, social and/or behavioural needs
  • providing a diverse and differentiated curriculum, offering an alternative learning environment and/or experiences for the disaffected.

The education experts representing the different countries found it useful to consider the division of successful strategies devised by the Netherlands into those that were curative and those that were preventative. Curative approaches focused on routes back into learning (education or work-related learning), both in and out of school, as well as ensuring reliable data at a national level, and enabling appropriate targeting of resources and evaluation of initiatives. Preventative approaches included bridging the gap between vocational and academic education, and strengthening transition stages.

To find out whether there was a common take on the problem and whether different groups of students were affected in different countries, the participants were asked to identify the different dimensions of disengagement. This revealed that for the UK, the number of young people not in employment, education or training (known as the NEET group) was a key problem. Out of all the countries involved, the UK had the lowest participation rate for 17 year olds in education and training, and in fact were in the bottom three of 30 countries surveyed by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) – see Education at a glance: OECD indicators 2004, OECD, 2004.

Core influences Impact of education structure The systems of education in the nine participating countries could be categorised as:

  • more or less ‘comprehensive’ (such as England, Wales)
  • more ‘selective’ or ‘separated’ (such as Austria, Hungary).

Variation in the length of compulsory education had an impact on disengagement, with those countries where this was longer having additional problems in retaining disengaged students. In England, Wales and Spain compulsory education finishes at 16, whereas in the Netherlands it is 17 and in Flanders it is 18.

Impact of choice The level of autonomy over the curriculum also has an impact, say the researchers. High levels of autonomy are likely to lead to increased segregation and selectivity with low levels of social equity, which could mean the needs of disengaged students are not adequately met. They point out that in Hungary, school autonomy was high, meaning that schools are very selective with all competing to attract the best students. This is a policy factor that contributes to disengagement in that country. In particular, there is a high level of disengagement in the socially and economically deprived areas, where there are also fewer resources available to provide for those needing extra learning support. With the increase in specialist schools, and the potential arrival of Trust status, the education system in England is becoming more autonomous. So policymakers could do well to ponder on the lessons from other countries, where more autonomy has led to greater levels of disengagement, to avoid such a scenario being repeated here.

Similarly, the researchers found that the level of selectiveness of the education system also impacted on disengagement. For example, in Norway, it has been shown that students who were not able to access their first choice of school were more vulnerable to dropping out. This finding has implications for the UK system where, in theory at least, parents are now being given increased choice over which school to send their child to.

Influence of vocational education The level of vocational education on offer, some would say not surprisingly, appears to impact on disengagement. Despite increased efforts in the UK to incorporate more vocational options into the 14-19 curriculum, vocational education was more integrated in other European countries, says the report. In Austria, Switzerland, Flanders and the Netherlands, for example, there is a huge range of vocational schools or schools that include technical and vocational curriculums for students aged 14 and above. A key problem for the UK is that vocational qualifications do not have parity of esteem with academic qualifications. This was seen as a common influence on disengagement. For example, in Flanders in many urban areas vocational education was seen as a ‘rubbish bin’ for low-achieving students who have poor employment chances and come from less well-off backgrounds. Where vocational education is fully integrated, such courses are not viewed as second-class options. In England, and Norway, where there is a dual system, vocational education is often seen as being of lower status.

There is a danger of seeing vocational education as the ‘solution’ to disengagement – a trap that many believe England is falling into. Often what is needed is a greater focus on teaching and learning styles, rather than providing a vocational ‘alternative’, say the researchers.

Other curriculum issues
In some countries, where students are required to choose their learning pathways early on in their education, poor levels of achievement and disengagement ensued where the wrong choices had been made. Other factors linked to the curriculum that impact on disengagement are listed in the box in the middle of page 2.

Effect of inclusion and exclusion
Segregation of pupils with special educational needs (SEN) was high in the Netherlands and in Hungary, whereas in contrast, in Norway only 0.5% of students are subject to separate teaching measures. In England, while there is a policy of inclusion, segregation still occurs, even though it may be less overt or publicly acknowledged. As for exclusion, this was high for schools in England, whereas in contrast, in Switzerland and Flanders it was rare, and in Hungary and Austria was not allowed. The researchers do not draw out messages on this, just saying that levels of segregation and integration may exacerbate disengagement.

Student factors Participants suggested different ways to categorise disengaged students to provide strategies that would help overcome their disaffection. These included viewing them as one of the following:

  • disappointed, and finding the curriculum irrelevant and unchallenging
  • disaffected, and being more at risk of exclusion
  • disappeared, with poor attendance.

Family background was seen as being a contributing factor, in particular where parents do not value school, condone non-attendance, have low or too high expectations, or are inconsistent in their parenting. Significant family events, such as bereavement, divorce, or new stepfamily, can also have an impact.

Other factors relating to individual students that impacted on disengagement include those listed in the box left on page 2.

Socio-economic and community factors
Home background and area of residence were seen as being key influences on disengagement. For example, in the UK socio-economic status was seen as being a stronger predictor of achievement than early attainment. The gap between the lowest and highest achievers widens as pupils progress through schooling. In five of the countries, minority ethnic groups were noted as being over-represented in the disengaged group – this was evident in the Netherlands, Austria, Norway, Spain and England.

Strategies for tackling disengagement The researchers found that the initiatives most likely to succeed were ones that included all, or at least more than one, of these dimensions: whole-school policies, focus on behaviour and attendance, and external support. Many of the strategies relate to how the curriculum is structured and delivered, pointing up the huge influence curriculum managers can have on stemming disengagement levels in their school. Revising the curriculum to make it more relevant to the needs of disengaged pupils was a common strategy, as was providing time-out provision that focused on addressing behaviour and developing social skills as well as offering a range of relevant learning opportunities. But where such options are made available, it is vital to have effective guidance systems to ensure students make the right choices, as taking the wrong route very often leads to further disengagement.

Using mentors (including those who are ‘experts by experience’ having gone through a similar situation when they were at school) or those from the same minority ethnic group, was seen as a core way to re-engage the disaffected. For the vulnerable, providing emotional and practical support as well as help with education was seen as crucial. One way of doing this was to allocate a designated teacher to work with such students to provide individualised support including learning and language support, pastoral/social, behavioural and cultural support, as well as building relationships with other agencies. To have the best chance of succeeding, pupils and their parents should be actively involved in planning their provision and setting targets for their learning. Another core factor for achieving re-engagement was to inform vulnerable students and their parents of what they are entitled to, how they can access such provision, as well as to outline their responsibilities in this.

The report also includes case examples of specific initiatives developed by the participating countries to improve access to the curriculum for the disengaged.

Valuable insights
The report does not evaluate in any detail the specific impact of given factors that influence disengagement in the participating countries, instead just skimming the surface of common causes. This is partly because it is a relatively small-scale study, and so cannot be that evidential because the research base is low. But that said, it does offer core strategies, both preventative and curative, that curriculum managers can consider using to minimise disengagement in their own school context. It also provides an interesting perspective on the vocational curriculum debate, emphasising the importance of achieving an integrated curriculum available to all, to remove the second-class citizen label that has so stigmatised such provision in the past.

Access a summary of the report by Sally Kendall and Kay Kinder via: www.nfer.ac.uk. Full copies of the report cost £15 and are available via the publications shop on the website.

Pupil factors

  • Lack of social skills and resilience and ability to deal with problems
  • Poor relationships with peers, which was the case for certain groups of pupils, including the:
  • outsider/loner then not attending school, for example, due to bullying
  • émigré with friends beyond school resulting in non-attendance and disengagement
  • alpha female/male (dominant young person) possibly resulting in behaviour problems and actively influencing others’ disengagement
  • colluder/disputant resulting in behaviour problems or non-attendance due to influence from truanting peers
  • Lack of academic ability
  • Having special educational needs
  • Lack of self-management skills
  • Significant health problems (involving absence from school)
  • Substance misuse
  • Previous negative experiences of school
  • Students who have to repeat a school year or those who have to change from a higher to lower level of education

Curriculum factors

  • The perceived irrelevance of the curriculum to the lives of many students
  • The prescribed academic orientation of the curriculum
  • Divisions between vocational and academic education resulting in pupils becoming ‘locked’ into courses inappropriate to meeting their learning needs
  • Inappropriate exam and assessment procedures
  • Reduced time for pastoral provision because of the pressure to cover the prescribed curriculum
  • Inappropriate teaching methods with schools focusing on curriculum and subject content rather than on learners
  • Pupils’ learning style being incompatible with school norms
  • Lack of alternative provision

Key ways to tackle disengagement

  • Develop individualised learning opportunities
  • Ensure interventions that support disengaged students are sustainable
  • Ensure staff have the necessary skills to work with disaffected pupils
  • Have effective communication between outside agencies
  • Allow pupils to determine the pace of their learning
  • Provide effective forms of guidance to ensure students make the right choices
  • Provide pupils with mentors, from inside and outside the education system
  • Secure active parental involvement
  • Ensure students not in school have access to formal accreditation
  • Produce school attendance and behaviour policies and promote these to students and parentsl
  • Adopt ICT registration and first-day absence follow-up systems
  • Retimetable the school day, for example, to provide a continuous day
  • Provide a system of rewards and sanctions for attendance and behaviour
  • Set up a system of peer ‘minders’ or parent pagers to monitor attendance
  • Monitor attendance and behaviour to identify trends in disengagement

Curriculum strategies

  • Create a differentiated learning policy and provide a flexible, diversified curriculum with a skills-based, rather than a subject-based, approach
  • Match learning styles and pace of delivery to the needs of students
  • Provide training for teachers on providing for different learning styles
  • Provide individualised learning routes with action plans for pupils and schools
  • Offer an alternative curriculum (including accreditation), for example, vocational courses based in college, or second-chance programmes within mainstream provision
  • Offer work-related learning, including the provision of work placements
  • Offer reduced/flexible timetables
  • Set up special units based in school to provide short-term targeted support for pupils experiencing difficulties or the chance to attend ‘time-out provision’
  • Provide extra-curricular activities and achievement classes, lunchtime and homework clubs and revision provision l Secure curriculum support from peers, business and community mentors
  • Allow students to make curriculum choices when they are ready to do so, as in the Swiss system
  • Have tools for diagnosing individual causes of disengagement

Curriculum initiatives

  • Time-out provision where educational and pastoral support is provided by craftsmen, social workers and/or special educators
  • Female-only courses at college in traditionally male occupations
  • ‘Roll-on roll-off’ programmes, with an emphasis on accrediting what students have learned
  • Providing at-risk students with a three-week career choice related course, showing them workplaces, occupations and possibilities, allowing them to try out practical skills at school, and raising their awareness of what they like doing and what they need to do to achieve their career goals

This article first appeared in Curriculum Management Update – Apr 2006

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