Flexible Learning Communities: Challenging Disadvantage, Enacting Equity

About the Conference

ICSEI endeavors to make schools around the world excellent and equitable by bringing together researchers, policy makers and educators, and creating the space for creative thinking and prototyping innovative practices for learning on all system levels. In 2017, colleagues from 41 countries gathered to share knowledge and experience from various perspectives, each motivated by a vigorous commitment to improve educational opportunities for all. This year’s conference theme, “Collaborative Partnerships for System-Wide Educational Improvement,” offered a multitude of opportunities to question how schools and education systems position their future in the decisions they make today. The theme gives prominence to the importance of partnerships between and among the various participants in international education systems — students, parents, communities, schools, districts, government and academics — to inform and impact student learning, practitioner professional learning, and system leadership. Members of ICSEI come from all corners of the earth and from diverse settings. They hold a variety of perspectives and represent policy makers, practitioners and scholars. ICSEI conferences generally attract people from more than 50 countries and have been held across the globe on every continent.

Presentation: “Flexible Learning Communities: Challenging Disadvantage, Enacting Equity.” Dale Murray, Michelle Murray & Joseph Thomas

Australia is home to an ever increasing number of young people who for complex social, historical, political and economic reasons, are outside mainstream schooling. Where their exclusion reflects the enduring legacy of education as an industrial sorting mechanism, flexible learning communities have emerged the world over to challenge the paradigm of education as economic capital. With some 70,000 young Australians engaged in flexible or alternative educational environments and potentially many thousands more disengaged from learning altogether, the country is challenged to fulfil its commitments under the Melbourne Declaration to “[improve] educational outcomes for Indigenous youth and disadvantaged young Australians, especially those from low socioeconomic backgrounds” (MCEETYA, 2008, p. 15).

It is at the ‘edges’ of educational landscapes where we often find evidence of innovation; spaces that cater to young people outside mainstream education are by necessity experimental. Assessing these spaces as habitats of inclusion, justice and equity therefore requires innovative approaches to the measurement of educational outcomes. By overlooking the structural barriers faced by marginalised young people, the dominant framing of education as ‘human capital’ development has obscured systemic disenfranchisement and oversimplified education as a panacea for socioeconomic disparity. Unsurprisingly, much of the contemporary discourse about educational outcomes has been preoccupied with improving Year 12 attainment rates and attendant notions of teaching ‘quality’, ‘effectiveness’ and ‘accountability’. The voices of young people at the margins—those most at risk of school disengagement—remain conspicuously absent. This paper brings to light the perspectives of flexible learning participants and practitioners, discerning the benefits of these spaces for disadvantaged youth and their communities, as well as the qualitative and quantitative methods by which those benefits may be more accurately measured.

Our discussion is informed by the recently published results of the Australian Research Council Linkage Project, Gauging the value of flexible learning options for disenfranchised youth and the Australian community. Through in-depth interviews with flexible learning practitioners, students and their families, participatory observation, econometric modelling and cost-benefit analysis, this research has provided detailed evidence of positive social return on investment in flexible learning communities throughout Australia.

The paper also unpacks school improvement processes developed by Edmund Rice Education Australia Youth+, Australia’s largest flexible learning provider, to create and sustain spaces in which youth and their communities may challenge intergenerational disadvantage. Findings illustrate how a more responsive estimation of the economic returns to flexible learning—which takes into account the distinct circumstances of participants—may help expose structural barriers to equity for marginalised young people and strengthen the empirical basis for improved educational policymaking.

Presenters: Dale & Michelle Murray (Youth+), also representing Joseph Thomas (James Cook University).

Edmund Rice Education Australian Youth+ and James Cook University partnered to present a paper session informed by the recently published results of the Australian Research Council Linkage Project – “Gauging the value of flexible learning options for disenfranchised youth and the Australian community”.

Conference Strand: “Increasing Equity and Challenging Disadvantage”.  ICSEI has a long standing interest in identifying and addressing inequities and disadvantage in and through schooling. This strand welcomes papers concerned with global and current perspectives on persisting and emerging inequities in education and the reciprocal learning and action required to address these inequities. In particular, we welcome papers focused on valuing learning that can be drawn from indigenous perspectives as a way to enhance understanding and shared perspectives.

Outcomes and Collaborations:

The paper was well attended and received within the small group concurrent session. The audience included researchers, education practitioners and administration personnel and appeared to represent a number of countries including US, UK, Canada. A number of connections were made with potential future collaborations currently being investigated with the following personnel.

  1. Carleton University, Ottowa: Kim Matheson Professor, Dept. of Neuroscience Director, The CHAIM Centre
  2. Nishnawbe-Aski Nation, Northern Ontario: Michael Boos, Principal
  3. Department of Education and Training Qld: Dr Regan Neumann, ADG Rural and Remote Schools