The Research Files Episode 78:  Supporting disadvantaged students in post-school pathways and transitions

Hello, thanks for downloading this podcast from Teacher – I’m Jo Earp.

The world, and the world of work, is rapidly changing – from the different ways we can study for professional qualifications to the new careers on offer. We know that young people's post-school pathways and decisions are influenced by what happens to them at school.

My guest on Episode 78 of The Research Files is Anne Hampshire, Head of Research and Advocacy at The Smith Family. We’ll be talking about the ongoing Pathways, Engagement and Transitions Study, which explores what is happening to disadvantaged students as they move through their final years of school and into the post-school transition period. We’ll be unpacking some of the early findings and student feedback relating to how teachers and careers advisers can best support them in making informed decisions about possible jobs and pathways, connecting with employers, and applying for further study or training.

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Okay, on to this episode with my guest Anne Hampshire. I started by asking her to explain a bit more about The Smith Family and her role.

Anne Hampshire: I’m Head of Research and Advocacy at The Smith Family – so, focusing on what impact is The Smith Family making in the lives of the children and young people who we work with, but also trying to better understand how we and other organisations might best support them; and then using that in public policy and discussions with government, but also the broader community.

Jo Earp: And The Smith Family is a not-for-profit, isn’t it?

AH: It's a not-for-profit, we’re 100 years old this year, so it’s our centenary, and our focus is really on supporting children experiencing disadvantage to achieve educationally.

JE: OK, now we're here today to talk about the Pathways, Engagement and Transitions (or PET for short, which is good!) PET Study. That focuses on post school, doesn't it on that transition period; why is it important then that education researchers and school leaders and teachers have got more of an understanding of these kinds of issues?

Anne Hampshire: The Smith Family for a while has been doing what we called an Engagement Rate survey. So, what are young people doing 12 months or so after leaving school and leaving our programs? And that was important research. It gave us a one-off [view of] where were young people in employment, education and training. But it didn't give it as a sense of what was influencing that engagement and what was happening 2 years after they left school, 3 years after they left school. So what the PET project is looking to examine is what's happening to young people as they move through the last years of schooling and into that post-school period.

And why it's absolutely important, this work, is that young people are really experiencing a really rapidly changing, complex, and, I think in some ways, pretty uncertain post-school transition experience. So we know labour markets are changing incredibly rapidly, what's happening in the credentialing space, the pathways, the opportunities are all changing pretty rapidly, including the role, for example, of Vocational Education and Training. And so, what we're hoping with this study is that we’ll better understand some of those factors for young people.

Also, what's really important is we've got pretty high unemployment rates for young people in Australia – have had for a long period of time. There's also an underemployment rate in Australia for young people of 15%. So that's where young people would like to be more engaged in employment, education and training. And there's also a group of young people who are not in employment, education and training at all.

So, all of those reasons, plus the fact that young people's post-school pathways are heavily influenced by what happens to them at school, is why it's really important I think for teachers and schools to have a strong focus on this area. And because it's such a dynamic environment, I think it's particularly important for researchers to have a focus on it, to not assume that what we knew 5 years or 10 years ago is still the reality for young people today.

I think for schools, what's really important is that the research internationally and I think increasingly in Australia is showing that young people who are exposed to the world of work while they're at school are much more likely to be in employment, education and training in young adulthood.

So, 3 big reasons I think: the data shows us how complex young people's lives are now; what happens at school absolutely influences what happens post-school; and if we're able to expose young people to the world of work while they're at school, they're much more likely to be in employment, education training post-school – which is a good outcome for them, for their life outcomes, but also a great outcome for us as a nation and the community.

JE: And we'll talk a bit more about what's exactly happening in schools and some of the feedback that you got from the students involved in the survey in a moment. But let's kind of have a think about who's involved then. This is an ongoing study, isn't it, so who are the participants and what's happened so far?

AH: So, we've got around 5,500 young people involved in this 3-year project and these are young people who were in year 10 or year 12 in 2020. And these were all young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who were on The Smith Family's long-term educational scholarship program called Learning for Life.

And they come from all states and territories. About 15% of them – so a significant number – are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people. We’ve got about 30% of those young people live in non-metropolitan areas, so a really good regional spread. And a significant proportion of those young people also have health and disability issues.

So it's a large number of young people, 2 different groups – a year 10 group in 2020 and a year 12 group, in 2020 – and we're following them over a 3-year period to really understand their experience of their final years of school and their experience post-school; what influenced both of those and what more could schools, government, organisations like The Smith Family, business, families, do to support improved post-school pathways?

JE: You mentioned there that it is disadvantaged young people. I want to dig into a bit more of that terminology with respect to this study then. I don't know whether it is, is there like a qualifying- … well, what do we mean by disadvantaged in this sense?

AH: Yeah, I appreciate it can mean a lot of different things to different people. So, for all of the young people who are on the Learning for Life scholarship (and hence involved in the PET study), they are all living in financially disadvantaged families. So that means they're all living in families on a very low income – so their parent/carer is either on a Healthcare Card or a Pensioner Benefit Card. So that's the starting point for the description of disadvantage.

But in addition to that, many of these young people have health and disability challenges that they're facing. Many of them, for example, are digitally excluded because they don't have digital access at home. A vast majority of these young people, about 75% of them, don't have a parent or carer who's in employment and most of their parents have not completed year 12. So, there's a range of factors that [are impacting on their lives], but starting with the financial disadvantage piece.

JE: So, you've just, The Smith family has just published initial findings then from the 2021 survey – that's 1,500 year 12s. You also did in-depth interviews with 38 of them. What were the main findings then in relation to post-school pathways, and also some of the challenges while they were at school?

AH: So, we’re following these 2 groups of young people – the group that was in year 10 in 2020 in the group that was in year 12 in 2020 and we're interviewing them 3 times, in 2021, ‘22 and ‘23. And as you said, interviewing also in-depth around 60 of those young people. And this first report is on that year 12 group and their first-year survey and their interviews.

I think the good news to kick off with is that 3 in 4 of those young people (and we were surveying them about 6 months after they would have left school), about 3 in 4 of them were engaged in employment, education, training. In total, about half of them were fully engaged, and another quarter of them or so were partially engaged (so there might be part-time study or part-time work).

There was another group, about 18% or so, who weren't in work or study, but they were looking for work or they were volunteering. And so, there's only a small proportion of these people, 7%, who weren't either in work or study or looking for work. And, given the complex lives that these young people have experienced, that's a pretty strong outcome. So that's a really good news, I think, piece.

But many of those young people were also facing some challenges. And I might just drop down to give us a little bit of a sense of, you know, what did boys look like compared to girls, etcetera. So young women, (probably not surprisingly, it's similar with data more generally), young women were more likely to be engaged in employment, education and training than young men. Indigenous young people were less likely to be engaged than non-Indigenous young people. Those who didn't have a health or disability issue were more engaged than young people who did.

Importantly, I think, for schools – we have some data on these young people about how they did in English in year 9. And those young people who got an A or a B in English in year 9 – almost 90% of them were in employment, education and training 6 months after leaving school, compared to only about 60% of those young people who were in year 9 who got a D or E in English.

It just reinforces, I think, what schools will know – how important it is to support young people who are struggling in things like Literacy and Numeracy, and how that Literacy and Numeracy data can actually, in some ways, predict, but hopefully not determine, post-school pathways.

In addition to that, young people were really clear about their experience of what helped them complete year 12 and move into employment, education and training. So, one of the things that was really clear is that support from a wide range of sources, particularly family and friends, was very important in helping young people complete year 12, to go that last extra mile. And, bearing in mind, this was a group of young people who had a fairly heavy impact of COVID (and we'll come back to that later).

So, family and friends were very important encouragers, helping them to think about post-school pathways. But, very importantly, so too were teachers, careers advisors. Many young people spoke about teachers going the extra mile – both helping them in curriculum work, but also helping guide them into what post-school pathways might look like. So when that relationship was strong with teachers it was really seen as an asset and a bonus by young people.

And I'm a former teacher and sometimes you don't know what influence you might be having or whether or not young people are actually listening to you. I think this research and research by others really confirms the important role of teachers in that, particularly I think for young people experiencing disadvantage who might have more limited networks of people who are in employment.

The second enabler that young people said was really important about helping them in their post-school pathways was being exposed to work and Vocational Education and Training while they were at school. Having the opportunity, as some young people talked about, to taste or to try a particular vocational pathway. Getting exposure to employers, to actually physically being on site in a work environment really helped them either confirm what they thought they might want to do, or actually rule it out. So, sometimes that practical experience meant young people went ‘I don't want to do that at all, I wanna think about something else’.

Also, what was really important to young people at school was high quality careers advice. So, helping young people think about options, pathways, and, in addition what was the second and the third choice if a young person didn't get what they really wanted to achieve. So they were the real positives that young people were able to articulate – when it worked well, that's what the enablers looked like.

The challenges for this group of young people – so young people who were in year 12 and 2020 –overwhelmingly, number one was COVID. Young people struggled with motivation. They struggled with online learning, many of them. It meant that they, many of them lost their employment, their part-time employment. Many of them weren't able to do practical VET courses and complete practical VET courses. Many of them felt isolated. Many of them felt they weren't able to get the normal exposure that young people would have to the world of work.

For some young people, one young woman said to us that she always knew exactly what she wanted to do post-school, but the year of COVID for her in year 12 really shook that certainty. The world became far less clear for her, and she struggled to think about what the future post-school might be.

COVID also impacted on young people having experience of work experience, and so one young man said he was quite confident that he would have got a permanent role if he'd done the work experience that had been set up for him. However, because of COVID, he wasn't able to do that. So, there were a lot of impacts of COVID. Some of them we would be pretty aware of, but others more subtle I think – both in terms of a sense of confidence about the future, but also opportunities beyond just the educational opportunity.

For some young people, one of the challenges, particularly in regional areas, but not just in regional areas, was having access to study and work options. So, some young people wanted to study a particular course at TAFE, wasn't available in their area, or wanted to involve themselves in a particular form of employment, which again wasn't available in their local area.

And the third challenge for many of these young people was actually applying for university or TAFE. And they were very often almost always the first in their family to go to university or to consider going to TAFE. And so many of them found that process, both the practical process of applying but also having the confidence to go through with that, a bit challenging. And some of them found it actually hard to ask for help. That's not unusual for young people generally, but some of the young people we spoke to felt particularly strongly that they wanted to stand on their own 2 feet. They didn't want to be seen as the person who was always needing help because they were from perhaps a less advantaged background.

And the final thing that was a challenge for many of the young people who were involved in this study was mental health. Now, 30% of the young people who were involved in the PET project had a mental health issue, in particular anxiety or depression, and that made it hard for some of them to both complete year 12 and also to think about what their post-school pathway might look like and to have a sense of confidence that they could achieve it.

JE: There’s a lot going on there in terms of things that are external factors, and you mentioned about COVID there. But also, like you say you've been a teacher, I'm a former teacher as well, you know, I'm starting to think, how can how can we as teachers try and mitigate some of those things? You know, you were saying, help with applying for university or TAFE but not taking away that independence and not singling out. So, even now I'm thinking, OK, could you set something up that's, you know, for everybody so you don't single people … so there's a lot going on there, isn't it?

AH: There is a lot, and it will vary from circumstance to circumstance, but hopefully what this initial publication is doing, and over time, is giving us all a few more insights directly from young people. So, hearing from a significant number of young people, sharing it extensively with teachers, with schools and with others – it adds to what we all know about young people and helps us to perhaps think about what might we do in a school level, at an individual class level, at a policy level, and a non-government organisation level.

JE: The other thing that I'm thinking about is something you said earlier about how quickly things are changing. And you're right, you know, in terms of, you know the different pathways, the different options, remote, non-remote, microcredentials … you know there's all these things coming up now. Technology, some of the technology involved. Yeah, I'm thinking that really we have to sort of review what's out there and keep on top of it, as teachers, yeah?

AH: And that can be a real challenge for teachers, can’t it, because it is changing so rapidly. And so how do teachers get access to the latest information? How do we make sure that we're advising them about the current or future reality rather than what might have been true even 5 years ago?

It's particularly important for young people experiencing disadvantage because they have fewer networks who are in employment, for example. So, the vast majority of the young people involved in this study, their parents aren't in the labour force for a range of reasons, so where do they get their most up-to-date knowledge about what's possible and pathways. Schools become that much more important. Where do they get exposure to the world of work if, you know, in their own network perhaps there isn't anyone who's in employment. Schools become that much more critical. Appreciate that's a challenge for schools because we're asking quite a lot of them. But I think one of the things we might talk about later is – How might schools do this? Who might they collaborate with about these sorts of things? Because we can't, as a community say, ‘well, that's schools’ responsibility’. I think it absolutely needs to be done, and I know schools want to do that in partnership.

JE: So, let's have a look at some of the themes then in a bit more detail. So, one of the major themes was that the young people wanted ‘more comprehensive and personalised career advice to support post-school transition’. Can you explain a bit more about what they meant by that?

AH: So, we asked young people whether or not they recalled receiving career advice at school. And, positively, most of them did – so, 86% ‘Yes, I recall receiving some form of career support’. Of the group who recalled receiving support, just over half of them said it was valuable. So that's our starting point. We might either celebrate that there were half of them or say ‘well, we've got some collective work to do’. There’s a group of them, about 35%, who weren't sure whether it was helpful or not, and there was a group of about 10% who said it wasn't helpful. And so we've, I think, collectively got some work to do in this space.

Young people really wanted in this personalised space for the advice to start with where they were at – their interests, what they were interested in exploring, rather than an external, perhaps generalised, career support for everybody. Now, I appreciate that's much more time intensive, it requires a far high level of skills to do that ‘let's start with where you're at and then explore’. But young people were very clear that that's what they felt they would much rather like.

A number of young people talked about expectations being imposed on them about what they might do – either because they got a very high ATAR level, or they weren't expected to get a very high ATAR level (so either end) – rather than starting with young people's interests and exploring out from there.

Young people were really clear that they wanted help exploring options, including back-up options. So, one young person talked about, you know, ‘I didn't get into A, but I didn't have a B or a C or a D’ and they saw the role of both teachers and careers staff [as] being able to help them think about a range of options and, importantly, how do I get from where I am now as a young person in year 12 on that pathway? You know, what are the steps, the small steps that can be taken to get from here to where I want to go? And that's the sort of personalised one-on-one support that young people saw as important. Young people who had that intense one-on-one conversation really valued it, and they thought more other young people would really value it as well.

Young people also identified that they thought a particular target for this more personalised support was where young people didn't have any idea about what they wanted to do. So they could identify in their peer network, you know, ‘x’ person or a friend who really wasn't sure who was a little bit at sea about what the future might look like. Young people were saying, ‘I think my friends would particularly value that more personalised conversational approach from staff’.

JE: And alongside that career advice aspect, they also talked about (and we've touched on this) access to work outside school … not just setting up the pathway, necessarily, but helping them make a more informed decision on what they wanted to do next.

AH: Yeah. I mean, it's pretty common for us to talk about ‘you can't be what you can't see’. And, you know, if you don’t know what exists, if you don't know what it looks like to work in medicine or in finance or in education. You know, the whole, there's so many options now for young people, but if your world has been, you know, a reasonably confined one, if you don't have access through your parents to a whole range of broader networks then how do you know what might be possible?

We need to give young people really breadth and width of opportunities so that they can then see what might be of interest to them, and have them really talk to people who are in work. It's hard to imagine what working is like when you're a young person, I think, and sitting in a classroom situation. We have a number of programs where there's a structured way of helping young people to have conversations with people who are in employment, both in a mentoring role, but also in other ways. And one of the things that that those sorts of conversations help expose is that it's likely that young people won't have, in fact it's almost certain, that young people won't have one job. That's not the reality anymore. And helping young people understand that they'll probably have multiple jobs and multiple pathways, and that that's actually a terrific opportunity. But how do they set themselves up for making the most of those opportunities? What are the skills, the knowledge, but also the mindsets that allow them to work through a lifetime of work in different careers and opportunities?

JE: So we've talked about the 2 aspects there – there’s careers advice, there's information and then there are links with the world of work. So, that's what we've been talking about. Why is it important then that schools think about support in both of these areas? Not just one or, sadly some cases not very much in either.

AH: I think the research is pretty clear that what happens to young people post-school is really influenced by what happens to them in school and the opportunities they get to think about their life, post-school, the opportunities they have to connect with people who are in work, to get the most up-to-date knowledge about opportunities, to also develop mindsets. I mean, that's a real focus for schools now. I think it's there's a really important mindset for young people to develop to think about a lifetime career and being a lifelong learner. All of that happens both in the high school space, in fact, it also happens in the primary years.

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. So, it's in when young people are young that the foundations for post-school life occurs. And I think schools have got an absolutely critical role in partnership with, you know, TAFE, universities, non-government employers, families, to help young people think about that world post-school.

JE: So, let's have a think then. This is the difficult bit, isn't it? What can schools actually do? What can teachers, careers advisers, school leaders as well, who are always in a great position, what can they do to help those students with post-school transitions? I'm thinking particularly disadvantaged students. We've already, let's start with … we were speaking there about the world of work and networks. And you're right, if you've not got that network through your family or friends or you know ‘friend of a friend does this’, ‘did you know that they do this job?’ How can teachers and careers advisors introduce children from those disadvantaged backgrounds to that kind of world of work?

AH: I think a structured program over multiple years, at least over the high school years, where you might think in year 7 ‘How do we help young people start to explore what's of interest to them?’ for example. And then it might get more intense. You might start to look at, you know, actually, so you might have people coming into the school to talk about a range of different types of employment. You might think, in the later years, you start to do some work on developing CVs, actually visiting work sites, having exposure through TAFEs, through universities.

So a quite structured program over multiple years. And some of the work out of, for example, Victoria, they've developed a curriculum which is very much sequential where you build different types of schools and exposure at different ages. I think there's also a role for primary years because in particular disadvantaged young people are starting to screen out. You don't start talking about careers per se I don't think in the primary years, in the way that you might in year 10, but talking with young people in the primary years about what do they like doing, and how what you like doing can also lead to people doing that in and beyond school. So really providing a quite structured approach.

I think it absolutely needs to be done in partnership. I don't think within a school we can think it's those one, 2 or 3 careers advisors and that's their area. It absolutely I think has to be, as we think about how does literacy develop, all teachers need to be able to help their students develop literacy. I think it's similar – there's a role for all staff, I think, in terms of helping young people think about their careers, both in formal ways, but also teachers have so many informal conversations with young people. And when they build those trusting relationships, that's also a source for, where teachers will have those, you know, perhaps less structured conversations about the world of work and what might be possible.

I think teachers are really important for young people experiencing disadvantage in that aspiration, motivation, space. You know, what might be possible. So, teachers, and I think there was a great example – one of the young people who spoke to us talked about two different careers advisors. One of the careers advisors said ‘you'll never get that ATAR, you need to think about something else’, the other careers advisor said ‘Why don’t we think about some other options as well?’. And so the different ways in which that same reality was handled made a fundamental difference on that young person. And so those sorts of conversations I think are incredibly important.

I think schools can do this well when they partner. We can't, as a society expect us to just lay all of this on to schools, as well. I think partnering with, perhaps not-for-profits where they've already got good relationships with industry is a good opportunity. There are universities, TAFEs. But doing it in a way which is structured, fits in with the overall plan of a school, I think it's really important.

JE: How do, at a practical level then, how do schools go about building some of those external partnerships? So let's, I mean, you know, you're from The Smith Family – do these things cost? What’s the outlay in terms of staff? You know, where do they start? If they've never done that before, where would they start?

AH: Yeah, great question. I think the starting point, for me, is that we need our schools to be educational leaders and to have all of that learning experience and knowledge that they do. And so they should partner, I think, ideally with organisations to help them in this brokering space.

So … I don't think it'll be helpful for a disadvantaged school for them to have 100 different corporates knocking on the door saying ‘we can help’, ‘we can help’, ‘we can help’. So, I think, perhaps looking for organisations that are able to help work with schools around a plan in this space. You know, it might be an organisation like The Smith Family, there are other not-for-profits that help in that brokering space where there's a shared interest in helping young people in this career space.

I think doing it together and not assuming that the school has to do it by themselves, they've got clear other responsibilities. But this can be done really well, I think, in partnership with organisations that might act as a facilitator or a broker, biting off bits that make sense at the time. You know, do you start with year 7 or you know, where do you start.

And I think all schools will have some things that are really doing. I think asking the question about – Is what we're currently doing the most impactful? What are young people saying about what we're doing? Is there anything we might do differently? What is this data and other data ... telling us about the needs of young people?

So, I think, having both a questioning and curious mind in this space, seeing it as an important role of schools and the leadership role that they will play in young people's lives, particularly disadvantaged young people, and doing it in collaboration, would probably be my 3 suggestions as a starting point.

JE: I've got another couple of questions and then I'll let you go – thank you very much for your time today. I was thinking, again, about a something that you said earlier about a student saying they didn't want to be singled out. What are your thoughts on introducing some of these programs? Do they need to be general? Is there a case for some of them being targeted for disadvantaged students? And, sort of, how you tread carefully around that?

AH: I think there’s a bit of both. So, I think, if you think about most schools there are some whole-of-year initiatives I think that are really important and work really, really well and we should encourage those; and they might look differently in year 7 than they would in year 9, and potentially year 12. And thinking about, how do they build over time, I think, is really important.

On top of that, I think there are some initiatives that, and some young people, who need, and would welcome, more intensive support. So I think it's a combination of it, and I think it's how we think about offering that more intensive support. You know, it might be about young people from more disadvantaged backgrounds, or it might be young people who are less sure about what their future might bring. I think there are different ways of doing it, but I think both will be important – both whole of year, but also some more targeted support, that's certainly what the young people who we spoke to suggested.

JE: One of the things that’s stuck in my mind today is starting from the point of ‘what are your interests, let's talk about you first of all’. So, I think that's good advice generally. Now, this is a, you mentioned it's a 3-year research project. You're going to get very different results once we’re out of that COVID restriction period, obviously we’re still dealing with COVID, but that lockdown period. What's next for the research project then, how long has it got to run?

AH: So, we've done the second wave of data collection – so, we've surveyed the year 12 young people again, so they're now 18 months out. And I'll just give you a little taster. What we've seen in that is there's been an awful lot of movement from particularly education to employment. So we want to unpack that a little bit. What's influencing that movement?

And we've got all of the year 10 data, both from our first survey and our second survey, to interrogate. So, this is a group that's had even more exposure at school to COVID. So, we'll look at both of their pieces of data. And then we'll have a third survey with both of those groups, wrapping it all together. What changes over time. The value of surveying the same young people 3 times and interviewing them 3 times is that you get much more of a sense of that dynamic and what's influencing those changes. Why did a young person change from being at uni straight after school to being in work 18 months later? So that dynamic, I think is really important.

And then really refining those recommendations that have come out of what young people themselves have told us. I think the gold of this research is that we're talking to a lot of young people over a significant period of time and really using that to inform what The Smith Family does, but hopefully what schools, what education departments think about, what businesses and other not-for-profits, and also, really importantly, what families think about it in this really important space.

JE: That's brilliant. Well, yeah, there's a lot of recommendations already that have come out and lots of data already, as you say from the first wave. And thank you for that sneak peek into the second collection as well. I'll put a link as usual to the first report and also where we can find out more information about the PET Study. Best of luck with it. It would be great to catch up with you again in the future and give listeners and readers an update on what you've found. But for now, Anne Hampshire, thank you very much for sharing your expertise with The Research Files.

AH: A pleasure. Thanks so much for your interest.

That’s all for this episode – if you want to keep listening, there are 250 episodes already in our archive. If you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to our podcast channel on Spotify, Apple podcasts, SoundCloud, or wherever you get your podcasts from, so you can keep up to date with our latest episodes.

References and related reading

The Smith Family. (2022). Pathways, Engagement and Transitions: Initial post-school transitions among young people experiencing disadvantage.

OECD data on career readiness:

UK Charity Education and Employers also publishes research on this topic: including its Drawing the Future report, which may be of particular interest to primary teachers

If you're working in a high school setting, does it have a structured careers and post-school pathways and transition program running across multiple year groups?

The young people in this study said they valued conversations about post-school pathways that started with their own interests and aspirations. Thinking about previous experiences, is this something you do with your own students?

With a group of colleagues, discuss the four questions for reflection posed by Anne Hampshire in this podcast: Is what we're currently doing the most impactful? What are young people saying about what we're doing? Is there anything we might do differently? What is this and other data telling us about the needs of young people?