Gauging the Value of Flexible Learning Options for Disenfranchised Youth and the Australian Community

Education is key to ensuring equality of opportunity for young people. Yet in Australia, an alarming number of young people disengage from school at an early age. There is a pressing need for quality flexible learning options (FLOs) to address this crisis. Though a complex task, quantifying the benefits of flexible learning is critical to ensure ongoing public support of these important programs. Drawing upon a wealth of local experience and academic expertise, this project aims to gauge the the long-term social and economic impact of FLOs in Australia.

As Australia’s flexible learning sector expands, researchers have undertaken to map the nature and reach of such programs. What remains missing is a reliable measure of the impact of FLOs in relation to lifetime outcomes for Australia’s most disadvantaged young people.

Our Central Research Questions:

  1. What life trajectories (and their associated individual and societal outcomes) do disengaged young people traverse in the Australian context?
  2. What changes to these life trajectories (and associated changes to individual and societal outcomes) can be expected as a result of participation in Flexible Learning Options?
  3. What mechanisms are at work in Flexible Learning Options that facilitate the reshaping of life trajectories of disengaged Australian young people?

This study employs a mixed-methods approach, with three components:

Component 1 – Quantitative Analysis – Using national datasets, students likely to participate in an FLO will be compared with non-participants of similar background characteristics. The difference between them is that students in one group remained engaged, whilst the others do not. Since these cohorts are otherwise identical (regarding relevant factors), differences in students’ lifetime outcomes can be attributed to participation in flexible learning. The ‘matching estimators’ methodology allows us to estimate the benefits of intervention for a diverse range of students.

Component 2 – Qualitative Analysis – Complementing the quantitative research will be a series of case studies that examine the impact of flexible learning on a young person’s life experiences. The research is informed by a case study research methodology (Yin, 2008) whereby selected FLOs, students, families, teachers and administrators will be the focus of analysis. The major focus of each case study will be phenomenological interviews which will seek to gain a deep understanding of personal perspectives and interpretation of “lived experiences” (Embree, 2008). This allows young people and their families to provide personal accounts of their experience in education.

The sites for the case studies will be coordinated by our partners: Youth +, QLD; WA Catholic Education, Perth; NT Government; the Brotherhood of St Laurence, VIC; the Dept of Education and Early Childhood Development, VIC; and Centacare, Townsville, QLD. We will seek a broad representation of young people for this study, including male and female, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, urban and rural, enrolled and graduated students. We will seek out recent and long-term FLO participants from a diversity of socioeconomic status. Also invited to participate in the study are individuals who have worked closely with the young people, including FLO staff, family members, and carergivers.

Component 3 – Integration and Synthesis – The final component of the project bridges the qualitative and quantitative approaches to enrich and contextualize our findings. Two techniques will be employed to synthesize and consolidate the research data:

  1. Social Return on Investment (SROI) analysis is a research and stakeholder-informed cost/benefit analysis. Centered on a broader understanding of value for money, SROI assigns values to social and environmental outcomes, as well as to traditional economic returns. It is a useful tool to articulate the benefits of FLOs in both financial and non-financial terms.
  2. Contextual mapping/audit will be used to identify the key organizational and policy environments affecting FLO development and participation. Contextual maps will be developed across the study sites, providing a framework in which to assess the research findings.