With a flattened student-teacher hierarchy and a focus on community relationships, UQ research shows why flexi schools are a growing phenomenon catching more and more Indigenous students who have fallen out of mainstream schooling.
Largely without our notice, a new form of alternative education – called ‘flexi schools’ – have been attracting and keeping Indigenous learners within the education system.
Research by Dr Marnee Shay, a senior lecturer in UQ’s School of Education and Senior Research Fellow at the UQ Centre for Policy Futures, has shown there are nearly 10 times more Indigenous students and staff in flexi schools than would be expected from numbers in the general population.
With statistics like that, something is clearly working.
Dr Shay’s work is revealing why flexi schools are so popular among Indigenous young people, and what lessons we can learn to change mainstream schools for the better.
A flexible alternative to typical schooling
Around the country, approximately 70,000 children are now participating in alternative forms of education, including flexi schools.
Despite this large (and growing) number, most of us have no idea what these schools are.
Dr Marnee Shay explains: “Flexi schools are defined differently in some contexts, but in Australia, they are spaces outside conventional education that address the needs of disenfranchised young people.”
As an Aboriginal woman with a youth work and teaching background, Dr Shay was uniquely poised to notice the unusually high numbers of Indigenous young people who were being attracted to this form of alternative education while working as a teacher at three different flexi schools in South East Queensland.
“As a practitioner in those schools, I used to work with young Indigenous people who hadn’t been to a typical school in four to five years," she explains.
"These young people would be labelled ‘disengaged from schooling’, yet in a flexi school context, they would come to school every day, and were highly engaged.
"It made me wonder whether there is something here mainstream schools can learn from.”
While those in the flexi school community felt these schools were improving education outcomes for Indigenous young people, Dr Shay says not everyone agreed.
“Some scholars talk about this phenomenon of flexi schools as dumping grounds – places within our society where young people who aren’t able to navigate the system just get churned out and moved to the side," she says.
“While I understand this perspective, my research has shown what we can learn from them while we fix the bigger issues.
“We don’t want to create a fear publicly that flexi schools are not doing anything for young people. That is definitely not the case.”
Unfortunately, without any research, there was no way to show whether flexi schools were helping or harming our Indigenous young people.
That’s why in 2013, Dr Shay set out to provide the first real documentation of Indigenous interactions with alternative schooling.
Image credit: GettyImages/MariannePurdie
What goes on inside flexi schools?
Surveying nine flexi schools across Australia, Dr Shay found the percentage of Indigenous students enrolled ranged from 3.8 per cent to 93.3 per cent, averaging at a stunning 31% per cent overall.
This was far higher than the number of Indigenous students enrolled in state and independent schools (9 per cent and 3 per cent on average, respectively).
And it wasn’t only the students where Indigenous people were over-represented: around 30 per cent of the flexi school practitioners also identified as Indigenous.
“That’s much higher than the current percentage of Indigenous teachers in the workforce nationally,” says Dr Shay, “which currently stands at approximately 1.2 per cent”.
The next step for Dr Shay was to work out what it was about flexi schools that were keeping Indigenous learners engaged in education.
Her research showed key aspects of the flexi school approach aligned closely important aspects of Indigenous culture.
Why do they work?
One example of this alignment is the focus on relationships.
“To create community, we would meet as a whole school at the start of the day,” Dr Shay explains.
“We would say good morning, check how people are going, and set up parameters for the day. There is usually a provided meal at lunch, and we sit and eat with our students, rather than in a separate staff room.”
This practice of relationship-building may have consequences that extend beyond the interpersonal.
“Some learning practitioners argue, if the relationships and dynamics within the class aren’t going well, don’t bother trying to teach your curriculum," Dr Shay says.
“That’s a pretty radical approach to education, but it works. It works particularly well in a flexi school environment, because there are young people who have experienced high levels of trauma and disruption.”
Flexi schools also benefit from a ‘flattened hierarchy’, meaning students and staff all exist at the same level, working as one team. This shift in the power dynamic causes a level playing field between students and teachers, which can put at ease students who have a history of clashing with authority figures.
Another benefit is the smaller class sizes. With around 100–150 students across the school, flexi schools are typically much smaller than mainstream schools, with smaller student-to-staff ratios.
“There might be half teaching staff and half support staff who have a range of skills in specific areas around social and emotional wellbeing, like social workers,” Dr Shay says.
"These support staff are vital due to the relatively high numbers of students with mental health and conduct issues, and students who have had histories with the justice or child protective systems."
Image courtesy of Dr Marnee Shay
Making flexi schools even better
With experience as a youth worker before becoming a teacher, Dr Shay had a clear advantage in meeting the needs of her complex cohort. But this is not the case for most flexi school teachers, who have only had standard teacher training.
As a consultant for four flexi schools across Queensland, Dr Shay is addressing this need. “I provide really tailored professional development advice to build the capabilities of their staff who deliver Indigenous education within their flexi school context.”
Dr Shay is also aware that, in conventional schools, research shows cultural competence of educators is an important factor in keeping Indigenous children engaged in education.
Her research with flexi school principals showed they were very willing to engage in programs to celebrate Indigenous heritage. However, they weren’t equipped with the cultural knowledge to effectively do so.
Because of this, Dr Shay has since incorporated quality cultural learning opportunities for staff into her professional development programs.
She also helps schools set and meet their own Indigenous Education Strategies.
“One school’s aim, for example, was to increase employment of Indigenous staff," Dr Shay says.
"And following our program, they have already raised their Indigenous employment from one to three staff members.”
Image: Dr Marnee Shay
Image courtesy of Dr Marnee Shay
Getting the message to the right people
Dr Shay’s research showed that flexi schools have been quietly meeting the education needs of a large group of Indigenous young people. Why then, she wondered, was there not more awareness of their critical role in education policy or the academic literature?
Working with UQ’s Centre For Policy Futures, Dr Shay has been campaigning to change this at the highest levels.
“I consult with the Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education and Training Advisory Committee (QATSIETAC),” Dr Shay says.
“Together, we are eight Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experts in education from all over the state. We provide high-level advice to the Queensland Minister for Education to develop and implement Indigenous education policy in Queensland.
“There have been really positive changes to Indigenous policy."
"One was an announcement last year of a shift towards ‘co-design’, where Indigenous communities participate on policies to do with our lives. This is underway now at both a Commonwealth and state level.”
Dr Shay is also campaigning for more data on flexi school education outcomes.
This is a more complex issue than it might seem, as Dr Shay and her colleagues outlined recently in an Indigenous Education Strategy policy submission for the Australian Government’s Productivity Commission.
“It’s complex, because it’s not clear precisely what data we could collect to fairly and accurately represent learning outcomes for flexi school students, particularly when they are engaging with high numbers of Indigenous students,” Dr Shay explains.
For example, some flexi school practitioners argue standardised tests (like NAPLAN) are not appropriate for testing flexi school students. This is because they are based on a system already shown not to work for those students.
In response to this, flexi schools may devise their own tools for testing. But, this comes with its own issues, Dr Shay warns.
“Having two completely different systems in operation around recording of outcomes is problematic. It may seem as though there is a lack of accountability and transparency around what flexi schools are doing with these young people.”
Dr Shay continues to work with a network of 12 flexi schools across Australia, exploring what Indigenous education excellence could look like. She is also working on a professional development video series and textbook to improve the delivery of education to Indigenous Australians across the country.
“Longer term and in an ideal world, of course flexi schools would not exist,” she says.
“If we had an education system that could meet the needs of each and every young person in our society, there would be no need for them.
“At the moment though, there is a critical need for their existence. Without them, we would have thousands of young people without any options to remain engaged in education because they have exhausted other alternatives.”
“While flexi schools continue to provide this lifeline for young people to continue with their education, we need more data on learning outcomes, and a better understanding of how they support this cohort – often labelled as ‘disengaged’ – so we can bring this learning to mainstream education.”