Whatever it takes: striving for a culture of student engagement - Education Matters Magazine
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Whatever it takes: striving for a culture of student engagement

Margaret Gurney, Assistant Director-General, State Schools Operations at Queensland’s Department of Education, shares insights from her role leading the #whateverittakes initiative in Far North Queensland. She reflects on how those insights are relevant to all educational leaders who strive to support every child to succeed at school.

Staying at school and finishing Year 12 is an important predictor of success. We know that young people who leave school earlier do not have the same chance of success as those who complete Year 12, with one in three not in study or work in the year after leaving [1].

In the Far North Queensland education region, there are more than 35,000 students enrolled at around 100 schools.

Working with many of those schools allowed me to witness firsthand the sad and destructive effects of student disengagement along with the remarkable outcomes that can be achieved when we all work together to support disengaged students.

In fact, as a regional team, we made a very clear commitment to do whatever was necessary to support every student to stay at school and succeed.

We called that commitment #whateverittakes.

A #whateverittakes mindset is what it takes to ensure every student is understood, engaged and successful at school.

This mindset is what it will take to achieve the Queensland Government’s ambitious target of 91 per cent of young people engaged in education, employment or training by 2022.

An evidence-based approach
We are fortunate to have a rich body of evidence to inform how we tackle the problem of student disengagement. The research points to three important elements:

  • a focus on strengthening transitions at every juncture of early childhood and schooling
  • a commitment to early intervention
  • a collaborative approach to how we work.

Strengthening transitions
Research has established that high-quality early childhood interventions targeted towards disadvantaged children can have substantial impacts on achieving equitable outcomes later in life (for example, James J Heckman, 2008).

But we also need to build on successful early years to support children at every juncture throughout their schooling, especially their transitions to high school and from school into further study or work.

Paying close attention to data, and working with schools to track the progress of every student is essential. It’s only through such careful analysis that we can find those students who are at risk of falling through the cracks, pick them up, and help them reconnect with their education.

Early interventions
In Far North Queensland, regional teams and schools analyse data to identify those students who are disengaged or at risk of disengagement. This data helps regional teams and schools customise strategies that can meet the needs of these at-risk students. Such data analysis can comprise:

  • attendance: long recognised as an indicator of a student’s engagement
  • school disciplinary absences: an important sign that a student is experiencing barriers and is disengaged or disengaging
  • A-E behaviour: a powerful indicator of potential disengagement, particularly where there are sharp drops or declines over time in A-E behaviour
  • A-E attainment: a powerful indicator of a student’s engagement.

Separate analysis of this data can show trends across a school and across time. The most powerful insights are achieved when the data is considered as a combined set.  Together, findings from this data are a signal for intervention, equipping schools with the information they need to develop customised approaches to support those students struggling to engage at school.

Most students experience a ‘speedbump’ along the way, and generally a simple intervention will get them back on track. However, some students experience complex barriers that need more than a simple intervention.

And while we know school is an important protective factor, sometimes schools cannot do it alone. In these circumstances, multiple agencies must work together to undertake the kind of complex case management that the most at-risk children and young people need to help them re-engage.

I know in Far North Queensland that strong cross-agency collaboration between the regional team and Youth Justice, Police and Child Safety, along with other agencies and NGOs, makes an enormous difference in helping that region’s most disengaged young people. The role of education in initiating and leading the co-design of cross-agency collaboration is critical.

Practices for student engagement
This important work requires each of us to demonstrate commitment, courage and precision and to look to further evidence to inform our practice. In 2018, the Department of Education commissioned research by Deloitte Access Economics and the Queensland Education Leadership Institute (QELi) to investigate state schools that have achieved academic gain alongside reduced school disciplinary absences and real retention [2].  The researchers found a common set of practices that underpin student engagement and achievement at these schools:

  • a clear culture and vision for engaging and retaining every student marked by high expectations, with deficit explanations for student outcomes rejected
  • high-performing and expert teams where all staff work together to address engagement issues rather than in silos
  • clear and common understanding and use of behavioural, cognitive and wellbeing indicators to track and respond to student needs
  • investment of resources prioritises equitable student engagement and outcomes
  • quality learning environments in which students are engaged, challenged and feel safe to take risks
  • development of meaningful connections among students, teachers and families to encourage student engagement and achievement.

While these youth engagement practices are not new, the findings from this research can serve as a useful reminder of the potential of every school to deliver best practice if they can develop a culture that promotes student engagement alongside academic gain.

Every educational leader has a role to play in helping us get there. Your professional skill and your personal commitment are fundamental to our success.

If every educator makes a commitment to do whatever it takes, then our collective effort will be life-changing for many young people.

It’s only through this kind of targeted effort that we can ensure all young Queenslanders experience the high-quality education they deserve and can transition successfully to further education, training or work. 

You can read more about the important work of promoting student engagement here.

Margaret Gurney is the Acting Assistant Director-General of State Schools – Operations at Queensland’s Department of Education.

 From 2017 until recently, Margaret was the Regional Director of Education in Far North Queensland, a diverse region that covers the Cape, Torres Strait, Cairns, Tablelands and Johnstone area. The role focused on early childhood education and care and schooling.

 Margaret began her career in education as a primary school and itinerant music teacher. Over her career, Margaret has enjoyed the challenges of being a teacher and principal across a variety of schools in various geographical locations from Mutchilba, Clifton, Chillagoe, Yorkey’s Knob in Far North Queensland to Ramsay, Nobby, Clifton and Harristown in the Darling Downs region to Goodna State School near Ipswich. Margaret then moved into the Assistant Regional Director (School Performance) role in Queensland’s south east region.  

Margaret is committed to doing her best in making sure that each and every child and young person has the best possible opportunity to lead a successful life. 

[1] Next Steps Early School Leavers Survey

[2] This study also included schools that out-perform like schools with respect to academic gain, school disciplinary absences and real retention.

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