Research update: Supporting post-school transition for disadvantaged students

We know that young people's post-school pathways and decisions are influenced by what happens to them at school. The Pathways, Engagement and Transitions (PET) study by The Smith Family aims to better understand the post-school pathways of young people experiencing disadvantage, and how this information can be used to create better support systems, including in K-12 school settings. Over 3 years, 2021 to 2023, the study is hearing from 2 cohorts of financially disadvantaged young people. In 2022 Anne Hampshire – Head of Research and Advocacy at The Smith Family – joined Teacher for a podcast episode that explored the initial findings from the first PET report. In today’s article, we take a closer look at the second PET publication, that focuses on what has changed and remained constant over the first 2 years since leaving school for the young people who were in year 12 in 2020.

The new report, Pathways, Engagement and Transitions: Dynamic post-school pathways of young people experiencing disadvantage, draws on survey responses from over 1,000 young people and interviews with 33 of the participants.

This survey collected data from young people across all states and territories – 55% were female and 45% were male, and 15% were from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds. Just under 30% lived in non-metropolitan areas and over one-third have a health or mental health condition.

The 3 questions the latest publication examines are:

  • What are the experiences and destinations of young people in the first 2 years after leaving year 12?
  • How have their experiences and destinations changed during this transition period?
  • What factors have helped or hindered young people’s successful navigation of work and study transition pathways?

‘By surveying and interviewing the same group of young people over three years, the PET study provides a unique opportunity to better understand the dynamics of young people’s pathways over time, what changes, what stays the same, and what influences these pathways,’ the report says.

The good news is that the data show young people’s engagement in work and/or study increased to 85% in 2022, the second year after leaving year 12 – that was up 8 percentage points, from 77%, in 2021.

Participation in work and study post-school

In this study, young people are defined as fully engaged if they are working and/or studying for 35 hours a week or more. Those working or studying for fewer than 35 hours are defined as partially engaged. In 2022, 57% of young people were fully engaged and 28% were partially engaged in work and/or study. Again, this is an increase on the 2021 figures of 54% and 23% of young people, respectively.

The extent to which young people were not engaged in work or study decreased from 23 percent in 2021 to 14 percent in 2022, with the vast majority of this group looking for work, volunteering or in unpaid work.

The type of work that young people were engaged in varied according to their engagement patterns. Of those working full-time and not studying (12% of young people), the most common occupations were in retail and sales (21%), labouring and other construction (20%) and transport, distribution and warehouse roles (16%). For those working part-time and not studying (25% of young people), the most common occupations were retail and sales (28%) and hospitality roles (24%).

Factors supporting post-school engagement

Strong career management skills were a key factor that supported post-school engagement for young people who were making successful transitions in the second year after year 12.

‘With these skills, young people were able to successfully identify and navigate available work and/or study opportunities and the many related systems designed to support post-school transitions,’ the report says.

Supportive adult social networks were another important factor, as study data show most young people sought advice and information about work or study options from their adult social networks. Among those who completed both surveys, in the second year after leaving school, 72% sought advice and information from relatives, roughly half (49%) talked to friends about work or study options, 2 in 5 (39%) sought guidance from educators and/or career advisors, and just over one-quarter (26%) discussed work and study options with their managers and/or other work colleagues.

‘Some young people had challenging circumstances with their immediate family, or their families lacked the networks and capacity to provide the support young people need to successfully transition into work or further study. For these and many other young people, extended social networks provided practical assistance but also helped them to strengthen their personal management skills,’ the report reads.

‘… many young people talked of the instrumental role supportive high school teachers had played in encouraging and guiding their pathway choices as they transitioned out of year 12,’ it adds.

Barriers to engagement

COVID-19 proved to be a significant barrier for many young people in their second year after leaving year 12. Two in 5 people (39%) said their work had been disrupted, while the same proportion said their mental health was affected by it. Of those studying, 50% said their studies had been ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ disrupted.

At the same time, it was very common for the study participants to have casual and precarious employment, with uncertain and inconsistent hours and low job security. Financial constraints also limited some people from pursuing study.

Poor mental health was another significant barrier – 30% of participants indicated they had poor mental health and, of those, 46% said their mental health ‘often’ or ‘always’ impacted their ability to do things other young people do.

How can schools better prepare and support students?

For teachers and leaders, the question is: How can school educators best prepare and support their students? The PET study identified a number of school-based opportunities (which can be enacted different year levels, not just year 12) to strengthen the post-school pathways of young people experiencing disadvantage.

The report suggests that students need more individualised support while at school, including early intervention for those struggling with the academic and social demands of school.

At the same time, it says that there should be greater focus on intentional career development learning for young people of all ages and stages. For example, as Anne Hampshire noted in our Teacher podcast: ‘The research is pretty clear that young people as young as 7 are screening out career opportunities – either based on gender or socioeconomic background, not based on ability.’

More education around helping young people to articulate their career development skills (including using a common language to describe them) is also a suggested action point. Young people would benefit from accessible information on diverse career pathways and encouragement to participate in Vocational Education and Training and apprenticeships.

The report also suggests that funding is allocated to expand high-quality career-related, remunerated work placements, cadetships and internship programs, which target young people experiencing disadvantage.

‘Improving young people’s longer-term engagement in work and study throughout adulthood will require significant improvement to the range of supports currently available to young people experiencing disadvantage, both in school and post-secondary settings.’


The Smith Family. (2023). Pathways, engagement and transitions: dynamic post-school pathways of young people experiencing disadvantage. Author. (1.7MB)

With a colleague, think about the data from this study, and other school-specific data and feedback you have: Is what you’re currently doing in relation to post-school transition having a positive impact for all students? What are students in different year levels saying about the supports and advice currently in place? What could you do differently to better support students, particularly those facing disadvantage?

This study showed that 39% of participants sought guidance from educators and/or career advisors. Do you feel adequately prepared to help students with their post-school pathways? What support do you need to help students access a wide range of information and resources?