Can flexible schools improve outcomes for disengaged students? - Education Matters Magazine
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Can flexible schools improve outcomes for disengaged students?

Dr Matt Hawkins EREA Flexible Schools CEO

Dr Matt Hawkins, CEO of EREA Flexible Schools, explains how a supportive and trauma-informed learning environment can better serve students who have experienced complex educational, social or psychological situations which demand unique responses.

“If you’re a child today from a poor family, or from the bush, or you’re an Indigenous child, then you’re three times more likely to fall behind at school. We must turn this around.”

These are the words we heard recently from Federal Education Minister Jason Clare. In response to the release of the OECD’s Education Policy Outlook in Australia, Minister Clare indicated that the report signalled the need for significant educational reform, particularly with respect to equity, funding, and teacher workforce challenges.

While the report highlights many strengths that exist in our education system, it is clear significant challenges remain. Like many educators, the Minister believes our education system can be “better and fairer”.

Edmund Rice Education Australia (EREA) Flexible Schools Ltd is the largest independent national provider of flexible schooling, catering to some of our country’s most vulnerable and marginalised young people.


EREA’s 23 Flexible Schools offer an alternate education to young people who have become disenfranchised from a more traditional, mainstream approach to schooling. Many of those young people have experienced trauma, neglect, abuse and significant family dysfunction. Significant numbers of our students have social-emotional disabilities, and many display challenging behaviours and struggle with self-regulation. We also have large proportions of First Nations young people, as well as a growing number of LGBTQIA+ young people.

Our students’ previous schooling experiences have often been defined by failure, shame and exclusion. Our model and approach is vastly different. Rather, our schools are characterised by radical inclusion, empathy, hope, fun and opportunity.


To describe the way that we work with young people, we use the language of ‘Common Ground and Operation by Principles.’ We utilise a counter approach to the traditional ‘power over’ model of schooling where adults possess all the control, and young people are expected to simply follow the rules. EREA Flexi Schools do not have nor enforce school rules. Instead, adults and young people operate together on the four principles of: Honesty, Participation, Respect, and Safe and Legal.

Our students have a great deal of choice, agency, and voice in what and how they learn, all within the parameters of a national curriculum and state and territory legislation and regulation. We solve problems collaboratively, and our young people are allowed to make lots of mistakes. Exclusion is rarely, if ever, an option.


We have schools from Townsville to Hobart, Wollongong to Geraldton, Alice Springs to Adelaide and our schools are all unique because they operate in and with local community.

The common thread that runs through all EREA Flexi Schools is our fundamental commitment to walking, working and learning alongside young people on common ground, and people supporting each other to operate within our four principles.

We do not seek to argue that our model is the silver bullet required to meet all current educational challenges, nor do we attest that every young person who walks through our gates is suddenly gifted with a bright future free from trauma, abuse or neglect. However, since our first school opened in Logan in the 1980s, our approach has had a great deal of success for a growing cohort of young people left behind and left out of our education system.

We are committed to continuing to work with government and other partners to keep providing an alternate educational approach for some of our country’s most vulnerable young people.

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