Understanding the unique needs of flexi-schools

I would say it’s probably the biggest issue faced across flexi schools, the increasing amounts of trauma you encounter in the young people and how that affects you personally.

Further to the previous article, a surge in the number of flexi-schools is drawing attention to the fact that a greater understanding of the unique professional challenges faced by staff in these contexts is needed, journalist Emily Campbell writes.

A proposed joint study by researchers from Griffith University in collaboration with Queensland University of Technology (QUT) will be the first of its kind to investigate the working conditions and professional needs of teaching staff employed in the alternative education sector.

During the first phase of research, the study will examine a broad overview of flexi-schools, including the career background of those working in the sector, staff experiences working with students from diverse and disadvantaged backgrounds, school funding structures and how teachers adjust their lessons and assessments to suit individual students.

Once published, the findings of the first phase will enable the IEU and researchers in the second phase of the study to better understand and explore ways to address the industrial and professional issues faced by these staff.

Dr Glenda McGregor, one of the researchers involved from Griffith University’s School of Education and Professional Studies, and Michael Loudoun, IEU member and flexi-school teacher, discuss what the research aims to uncover.

The role of flexi-schools

Alternative education programs and flexi-schools play an important role in society – aiming to re-engage disadvantaged and alienated young people in learning (Thomas & Nicholas, 2018).

Importantly, flexi-schools provide an opportunity for students who have become disengaged with mainstream schooling to reconnect with education.

Dr McGregor said the reasons some students drop out or do not cope with schooling are complex and varied: mental health issues, volatile home life, teenage pregnancy, social and economic disadvantages, behavioural problems which have led to expulsion or exclusion and the inability to cope academically are some of the reasons cited.

“The staff are teaching some students who have really high needs, including many children with low socio-economic issues,” she said.

“There may be compounding issues like significant trauma, there could be homelessness, children who are couch surfing, [children with] learning difficulties or behavioural problems associated with undiagnosed issues,” she said.

Dr McGregor said flexi-schools provided a more viable educational option for students facing these types of hardship, given these schools often have flexible timeframes for attendance and completion of curriculum and assessment.

“Their structure is non-traditional compared to other forms of traditional schooling in the sense of culture, relationships and wrap-around social and health services in addition to providing individualised curriculum and pedagogy for students,” Dr McGregor said.

According to Dr McGregor, demand for flexible education centres and alternative schooling programs has increased significantly over the last decade, with over 400 flexi-school programs operating across Australia which cater to around 70,000 students (AAFIE, 2019).

“There’s a great deal of variety in the governance of flexi-schools, which are often sponsored by youth groups, religious organisations, charities, philanthropists and community bodies,” Dr McGregor said.

“Given they are frequently grassroots community or charitable responses to the needs of marginalised young people, flexi-schools can operate individually and in isolation from other sites.

“This increases their vulnerability to failure due to tenuous funding arrangements and increased challenges for the teaching workforce who may lack adequate professional development and personal support,” she said.

Understanding the sector

The research process being conducted by Dr McGregor, along with Dr Aspa Baroutsis from Griffith Institute for Educational Research and Professor Martin Mills from QUT, will take place over the next three years.

“To date, education researchers have focused their attention upon teachers and teaching in mainstream schools; however, the unique contextual and professional challenge and pedagogical innovations of those who teach in non-traditional schools have not been investigated,” Dr McGregor said.

“During previous research, we became aware of, and curious about, the opportunities and challenges for teachers working in these sites, so we wanted to learn more.

“In our research, we’re looking to examine the extra freedoms teachers have to experiment with curriculum and pedagogy, but also the drawbacks and challenges faced by staff, things like lack of funding and resources, which can make these schools quite vulnerable,” she said.

Research approach

“During the first phase of research we will explore the big-picture questions, such as who are the people who have chosen to teach in non-traditional schools and why, and the challenges they face.

“We also want to explore how teachers modify their teaching and assessment to suit individual students, how the schools operate and the realities of working in these roles.

“We want to examine all angles – staff job security, staff attrition, funding models, the impact on staff mental and physical health, hours of duty, the emotional impacts of dealing with high-needs students and the increasingly blurred lines of professional roles.

“Another aspect is the differences in professional and industrial issues based on geographical location, so we will be looking at metropolitan, regional and remote flexi-schools,” she said.

The research project is being funded by an Australian Research Council Linkage Project grant in partnership with Edmund Rice Education Australia, Jabiru Community College, Community Learning Limited (Jabiru College) and Youth Inc, all of which run flexible learning centres at a range of sites.

The reality for staff

Loudoun is an IEU member who has worked at St Mary’s Flexible Learning Centre since 2015, after previously teaching at schools in the western Sydney area.

“When St Mary’s opened in 2015, it was in response to a community need for a flexi-school and so I’ve been there since the beginning,” Loudoun said.

“One of the aspects of working at a flexi-school I most enjoy is having the ability and scope to work with young people with a bit more flexibility and freedom in the way I teach.”

He said teaching in flexi-schools is different to working in a traditional school and that it doesn’t suit everyone.

“In traditional high schools, different teachers specialise in teaching particular subjects, whereas because we’re in small settings, we usually have to be very multi-skilled and learn outside our curriculum,” he said.

Loudoun said the emotional impacts of working with high-needs students, many of whom have experienced trauma, is a significant issue for flexi-school staff.

“I would say it’s probably the biggest issue faced across flexi-schools, the increasing amounts of trauma you encounter in the young people and how that affects you personally,” Loudoun said.

“Employers need to look at, and address the need for, increasing PD around topics like vicarious trauma and how to cope with that,” he said.

For some flexi-schools, funding of resources and job security can be issues of concern for staff, which is one of the angles of research Dr McGregor’s team plans to investigate.

Loudoun said he is pleased at the research being undertaken by Dr McGregor and her team, which will undoubtedly benefit flexi-schools and wider society.

“The study is a positive move which gives a lot of credibility to the amazing work being done in flexi-schools and hopefully it will support the development of improved industrial and professional conditions for workers in flexible learning centres, which are essential factors in providing quality education,” he said.

“The study will help to identify the unique challenges flexi-teachers face and open a platform to learn more.”

Members working in flexi-schools who are interested in participating in Dr McGregor’s study can contact her with expressions of interest via email g.mcgregor@griffith.edu.au (include name and phone number).

The Australian Institute of Healthand Welfare (2019) reports that every student who fails to complete Year 12 or equivalent and is unable to actively engage in work or study following school produces long termcosts to Australian society. Communities reap both social and economic benefits through greater investment in flexi-schools, with estimates suggesting that for each dollar invested in the sector, Australian society will likely accrue between $6 and $18 in return through gains associated with decreased criminal offending and reliance on public health and other social systems (Thomas & Nicholas, 2018).


Australian Association for Flexible and Inclusive Education 2019, AAFIE, viewed 1 February 2021, https://aafie.org.au

Thomas, J & Nicholas, C 2018, Estimating the economic returns to flexible learning options in Australia - A social return on investment analysis. https://youthplusfoundation.org.au