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Disengaged Students are Finding Education Champions in the Independent Sector

Young people who have disengaged from mainstream education now represent 1 in every 80 students enrolled at Queensland independent schools, contradicting a common public perception that the sector only caters for the privileged.

Specialist education services for disengaged learners are the fastest growing school type in Queensland’s independent schooling sector.

According to the latest February non-state school census data, the number of independent Special Assistance School (SAS) sites more than tripled between 2013 and 2018, from 7 to 24.

Student numbers have also increased over the same five-year period from 536 to more than 1,520. These students represent 1.3 percent of the 121,000 students currently enrolled at Queensland independent schools.

This growth is reflected in the record attendance of SAS staff at a professional learning event in Brisbane today (22 June) hosted by Independent Schools Queensland (ISQ).

More than 250 school leaders, teachers and youth workers will hear from experts in the field, examine models of schooling and share best practice teaching and learning approaches.

ISQ Executive Director David Robertson said community demand for specialist education services for students who have disconnected from formal schooling because of disadvantage or trauma was not abating.

“The integrated education and welfare model adopted by these schools, combined with their small class sizes and high staff ratios, is helping students build self-esteem and equipping them with the skills to participate in the economy and community,” Mr Robertson said.

QUT Senior Lecturer in Mathematics Education Dr Bronwyn Ewing will share insights, from her research into teaching mathematics to students in detention, with schools at the forum.

Dr Ewing said her three-year Australian Research Council-funded project grew from the need to improve mathematics teaching practices for marginalised and vulnerable students.

“Often we blame students, but it’s the teachers who need to reflect on their practice and consider the effectiveness of their teaching strategies, planning, assessment and resources for supporting disengaged learners. As teachers we all must think about what we are teaching and the impact on students,”  Dr Ewing said.

The research project, which is being run in conjunction with a youth detention centre, is shifting the teaching of maths away from uninspiring worksheets that further disengage students, to maths grounded in real-world, culturally relevant contexts. A critical focus is embedding Indigenous perspectives in the teaching and learning of maths.

“For example, we did lesson modelling focusing on the area of the Aboriginal flag and its colours. We started with looking at how much of the flag was covered in yellow and then black. In later lessons students will examine the circumference of the circle on the flag,” Dr Ewing said.

Other lessons draw on Indigenous artwork to explore radius and diameter, and the salaries of hip hop artists to explore number and place value.

“By providing a context that interests students, we can then draw out the maths concepts that connect with that context. This strategy works to unlock the students’ capacity to engage and participate in learning. We have found this strategy allows for more dynamic teaching, with teachers and students interacting about maths, but through the context from which it emerges,” Dr Ewing said.

Dr Ewing said the visual presentation of support material and equipment, which adopt a multi-sensory approach, was also important for disengaged students, many of whom also had low literacy levels.

The project is producing maths resources for teachers and students which take into consideration specific design elements such as colour, imagery and font size. When students are presented with well-designed materials they are more likely to want to engage with them.  

Dr Ewing said education was a powerful anti-poverty strategy.

“These young people have enormous potential to learn, but because of their life experience and for some, because of their intellectual disability, they have been precluded from learning. This then continues the cycle of disadvantage into their lives as adults,” she said.

MEDIA CONTACT: Justine Nolan | 0428 612 315 |

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