Checking the numbers on SA school retention

The formula for measuring the SA schools retention rate delivers incomplete, misleading data, argues Helen Connolly. Measures and policy must track and address students falling through the gaps.



Currently the way we understand how young South Australians are doing at school is measured at the population level, via key data sets.

The assumption is that these numbers accurately gauge if children and young people are staying enrolled in school, completing SACE (or equivalent) or regularly attending school.

Data from 2019 has been analysed and publicised using figures from the last decade to paint a positive picture of the current situation for the State. The overview for 2019 is therefore presented as follows:

  • The apparent retention rate for all South Australian students was 89 per cent, an increase of 8 per cent since of 2010 (81 per cent) and higher than the national average of 82 per cent.
  • In 2017, the proportion of young people who completed a senior school certificate or equivalent in South Australia was 88 per cent, a significant increase since the 2009 figure of 65 per cent. The national completion rate average in 2017 was 79 per cent.
  • The school attendance rate for year 1 to year 10 students in all South Australian schools was 92 per cent, remaining steady since 2014 (92 per cent).

However, if we step back from the numbers and question if they are an accurate and appropriate reflection of the depth and breadth of children and young people’s experiences of education and engagement with school across the state, a different view may emerge.

That’s because the data presented as positive statistics above was originally designed to be used as a key performance indicator to measure progress toward intergovernmental targets set at the national level. There is no doubt this works in the funding and policy arena, and assists the mechanics of state and federal relations; however, this approach has some major blind spots at its grassroots.

By using data prepared for a different purpose in this way, the experiences of those children and young people who are detached from school are made invisible. These blind spots mean that in general, children and young people may not be doing as well as we think.

Not knowing exactly how things really are is a significant problem. We need to know for better or worse. What the data must provide is a clear line of sight to the problems, with indicators that shine a light on how all children and young people are faring in school, including those who are disengaged or not enrolled.

There are examples of other recent reports that have successfully sought to use data to shine a light on the complex problems of school detachment. The University of Melbourne’s The Australian Education Problem No-one Wants To Talk About aptly captures the problem. The cumulative effect and cost of students failing to meet benchmarks at all levels of schooling has been documented in the Mitchel Institute report, Educational Opportunity In Australia. In a similar way the cost of persistently low retention and achievement has been highlighted in the Counting the costs of lost opportunity in Australian Education report.

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By continuing to put data out that does not accurately capture or appropriately reflect aspects of educational engagement and attainment in the public domain, we risk baking in blind spots to major social issues.

Using the wrong data undermines policy insights. It can skew the protracted public policy challenge of how disadvantage in school and society works to exclude some children and young people, particularly those doing it tough.

The data we rely upon currently does not pass ‘the reasonable person test’. It comes with so many technical caveats and warnings that it makes it difficult to use as a measure of the day-to-day reality of what children and young people and schools experience.

Neither does it tell us what happens to the large numbers of young people who have partially completed school qualifications. How do we count those children who are not enrolled in school? What happens when we use averages that mask the real number of students who are habitual and chronic non-attenders? These are children and young people, who for a variety of reasons are missing significant amounts of schooling each term and yet they do not show up in the data used.

Missing the opportunity to gather this detailed data means we are not accounting for, or addressing the problem of school detachment adequately. We need to fully understand the extent of the issue and then respond to this challenge of lost opportunity. We need data on real retention rates, on senior school certificate completions, and on school attendance for all young citizens, both inside and outside the education system.

It’s time to listen to what children and young people have been saying about their diverse experiences of school, and then address the challenges they face to accessing an education to which they are entitled from a more informed perspective.

Helen Connolly is SA Commissioner for Children and Young People. This opinion piece is a response to an InDaily story on school retention rates.

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