Practical ways to support student engagement

An effective school system demonstrates that it can deliver equitable outcomes for all students (OECD, 2012). In order to achieve this, evidence is required to equip schools with the practices they need to engage students.

To assist in the development of evidence-based best practice, in 2018 the Queensland Department of Education partnered with Deloitte Access Economics and the Queensland Education Leadership Institute to examine a sample of 60 state schools that have successfully engaged and retained their students alongside achieving academic outcomes.

The research revealed a number of practices to support student engagement and achievement that are common in these high performing schools.

Rejecting deficit explanations

The high performing schools reject deficit explanations for student outcomes and challenge negative assumptions held about students. They promote a culture that values every student regardless of their circumstances or personal challenges. A ‘never-give-up’ attitude pervades the culture and the whole school takes collective responsibility for the success of every learner.

These schools are cautious with the language they use to describe students. Students’ strengths, not deficits, are emphasised. These schools reject the use of a student’s vulnerabilities as an ‘excuse’ for their outcomes.

There is a risk that when a student has below average results, schools can rationalise such outcomes as characteristic of a child’s cultural background, family situation or socioeconomic status. Sometimes this is referred to as a ‘tyranny of low expectations’. However, our research revealed high performing schools challenge such deficit thinking and rationalisation and, instead, see these situations as an opportunity to refine their own approach to ensure the success of every student.

Adjusting established structures

We found that schools that retain their students and achieve academic outcomes have the courage to adjust established structures in response to student needs.

Having established a vision to support every student to succeed, these schools align their allocation of resources with their vision. They have the courage to move away from investments in historical programs that do not support every student to succeed.

They monitor a range of data to measure the effectiveness of their investment. This includes academic gain, student behaviour ratings, school disciplinary data, retention rates, attendance levels, school opinion surveys and the outcomes of the students in the year after they leave school. Collectively, these data give comprehensive evidence of where these schools stand in their efforts to improve student engagement and also set valuable benchmarks to use as evidence to inform future resourcing allocations.

Affording students the ‘dignity of risk’ to learn

Schools in this research demonstrated that they afford every student the ‘dignity of risk’ to learn, especially students requiring intensive support. They set high expectations and aspirations for every student. Such an approach creates an environment for every student to be supported to engage and to learn.

They also offer their students a curriculum that is differentiated, stimulating and challenging, and help them build learning stamina. These schools avoid ‘watering down’ opportunities and connect the curriculum to the lives and experiences of their students.

In high performing schools, teams work together to understand individual student needs and distribute resources to redress disadvantage. Teachers are encouraged to understand and address student misbehaviour with a professional lens. Teacher emotional intelligence and empathy is valued in these schools, particularly when working with vulnerable young people.

Systemising good practice

The findings from our research highlight some of the practices that can lead to the engagement of every student, alongside academic gain. While some of these practices will already be familiar to educators, the challenge we face is to systemise these practices in all schools. It’s only through a collective effort that we can deliver an equitable education system and ensure that every young person, irrespective of their personal circumstances, can succeed at school and in life.

Questions for reflection

You can use these questions to reflect on practices in your own school:

  • What does your school team do to demonstrate its belief that every student can succeed?
  • Does your school’s vision state the goals you have set to engage and retain all students, including those at risk of disengagement or early exit?
  • Does your school culture reject deficit explanations for student outcomes and challenge negative assumptions held about students?
  • Does your school team work together to identify students at risk of disengaging and intervene early and in the right way to achieve engagement and academic outcomes for every student?
  • How does your school monitor the impact of strategies it uses to achieve the engagement and academic success of every student, particularly those most at risk?
  • Does the school monitor student engagement using data from multiple sources – including disciplinary absences and other behavioural data, stakeholder survey data, attendance rates, feedback from students and families, retention and transition data, as well as academic achievement data?
  • When sharing data among your school team, how is student privacy and dignity maintained?


OECD. (2012). Equity and Quality in Education: Supporting Disadvantaged Students and Schools. OECD Publishing.

The Queensland Department of Education has produced a Practice Insights paper (388KB) on Youth Engagement, aligned to the National School Improvement Tool domains.