Tasmania has among the lowest school retention rates in the country. But experts at the University of Tasmania are working to turn this around.

Imagine you’re a young person who hasn’t had an easy journey through school. 

You may be disengaged from learning. Teachers may find your behaviour hard to handle.

You may be suspended. If so, then you’re just one of 3000 students suspended each year from school in Tasmania – and you may be suspended for long periods, or multiple times in a year.

However, evidence suggests that punitive measures don’t work. 

Dr Jeff Thomas. Photo by the University of Tasmania.

“When some teachers talk about managing difficult behaviour, they say: ‘I just have to set an example. We need to show that we’re doing something’,” said Dr Jeff Thomas, Lecturer in Behaviour Management in the Faculty of Education at the University of Tasmania. But this knee-jerk response can be damaging.

Exclusion sends messages to students. It says: ‘How you are is not okay. Unless you change, you’re not welcome.’

A long-standing problem

Tasmania has the lowest school completion rate in Australia, with the exception of the Northern Territory. In this state, lack of educational attainment is often inter-generational. 

The effects of unchecked school disengagement are not just temporary, nor confined to individuals. It can have life-long and society-level implications. Statistically, the outcomes of departing education early are signficant and include a lower income, poorer health and even a shorter lifespan. Minimising exclusion and maximising engagement are therefore essential goals for the state as a whole. 

“The need is clearly great in Tasmania,” Dr Thomas said. 

"To keep these students in education, we need to work to make every interaction in school increase their engagement."

Working in a garden. Screengrab from a UTAS video.

Two pathways

An award-winning veteran of classroom teaching, with three years’ experience working with disengaged youth, Dr Thomas has authored two specialist courses for student and professional teachers. 

Masters of Teaching students all take the compulsory unit Planning for Positive Behaviour, and to date, 50 practising teachers have undertaken the Re-Engaging Disengaged Students unit, as part of the Graduate Certificate in Education (Inclusive Education).

Dr Thomas and his colleagues are also working directly with independent and Department of Education schools, in an effort to get the department’s best-practice student engagement principles implemented in all schools. He explains:

If the relationship between a student and school has become so broken that a child cannot be in school any more: what do you do? This is where we need to aim to do school differently.

At the coalface

On the sports field. Screengrab from a UTAS video.

Dr Thomas cites the example of the Catholic Church-run St Francis Flexible Learning Centre in the Hobart suburb of Chigwell, which works with some 60 students in a non-judgemental, inclusive environment. 

“There is a high staff-student ratio, no uniform, and staff and students are on a first name basis,” he said. 

Such centres have a flexible curriculum that draws on individual interest and encourages learner empowerment.  One day, for example, students might be working on designing and building a skateboard, on the next they may be developing their CV to prepare for a job. There’s plenty of outdoor time and much variety. 

Wrap-around services like drug and alcohol help are provided on-site. 

A model that works

This is the model Jeff Thomas advocates and that is being recognised by the Department of Education through recent policy changes. It’s been proven to have profound impacts on students’ futures. 

“I am pretty booked out working with schools, so there’s certainly a thirst for finding a new way forward, and a recognition that old, punitive ways don’t work,” said Dr Thomas.  He continues:

As a state, we have the opportunity to be something of a test case. We’re small enough to actually have a statewide revolution in terms of reducing student disengagement.

Study Education at the University of Tasmania and learn from student engagement experts how to create positive change in young people’s lives.

Hero image: photo by Suzanne Tucker/Shutterstock.

About Dr Jeff Thomas

Dr Thomas has worked as a teacher educator since 2013 and started his full-time position in 2016 after the completion of his PhD. Prior to working at the University of Tasmania, he worked for 12 years as a secondary school teacher both here and overseas, culminating in him winning both the State and National NEiTA (National Excellence in Teaching Awards) and the Pride of Australia award for Inspiration.

View Dr Jeff Thomas's full researcher profile