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Tough time for those who leave too soon

AUSTRALIA

In part two of the analysis of why teenagers quit school early, The TES finds it is a growing international problem

Students are abandoning school in ever growing numbers. At the start of the 1990s, almost 80 per cent of young Australians remained at school to their final year at 17 - up from 30 per cent a decade earlier.

However, since 1992, the proportion staying on for further study has steadily fallen and in state schools was down to 65 per cent in 1997.

The retention rate varies between the sexes (fewer girls quit than boys), between the private and public sectors (rates for leaving are higher in state schools), and between the states, but the retention rate has declined across the nation.

The rise in drop-outs coincided with a drastic fall in work available for teenagers. In the 10 years to 1997, full-time jobs for teenagers fell by almost 50 per cent while apprenticeships went down by 11 per cent.

An investigation by Stephen Lamb of the Australian Council for Educational Research reveals that the students most likely to quit are those from poor families who live in disadvantaged city or rural areas.

There has also been massive cost-cutting by Conservative state governments. Two of the states where the rise in numbers leaving has been greatest - Victoria and South Australia - are both headed by right-wing governments which slashed spending on schools.

Victoria's Conservative government, elected in 1992, closed 300 schools, abolished 8,000 teaching posts and re-introduced external exams in the final year of high school. This resulted in larger class sizes, fewer subject options, a reduction in specialist teachers and a more academic curriculum.

Mr Lamb says that how well students do in school strongly influences their behaviour: failure contributes to the numbers who leave. He says schools need to find ways of maintaining high levels of attainment and ensuring all students reach those levels.

The federal government adopted another approach: it cut aid to the drop-outs and introduced a work for the dole scheme, thus making it harder for students to survive if they do leave school.

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