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This research focused on one of the most vulnerable groups in Australia’s vocational education and training (VET) system: young early school leavers.1 While a quarter of those undertaking government-funded vocational training are aged between 15 and 19 years (NCVER 2017a), many early school leavers are unfortunately disengaging from their vocational training before completion. There are also many early school leavers who do not access or enrol in vocational training as an alternative to school completion. The issues of disengagement, non-completion and disinclination to undertake vocational training were central themes in our research into the factors enabling engagement with vocational training.

This research, undertaken by the Brotherhood of St Laurence Research and Policy Centre, with the assistance of the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Vocational and Educational Policy, addressed the central research question: what approaches would maximise successful entry into and engagement with vocational training for disadvantaged young people?

The most recent data on completion rates for young VET students (25 years and under) without prior post-school program completion shows a completion rate in 2015 of 58.3% (NCVER 2017b). Despite the NCVER data projecting this is an increasing rate of completion from 2014 (54.9%), promoting access to and completion of VET programs for early school leavers has assumed an added urgency. This is due to both the increasingly hostile labour market confronting young people and the relative advantage those with post-secondary school qualifications have over those whose education has ended prematurely.

Predominantly qualitative, our research was conducted in a total of 16 selected sites spread across three states (Queensland, Tasmania, and Victoria) that were able to provide access to disadvantaged urban, regional, and rural communities. Direct consultations were undertaken with adults working to deliver accredited training; adults in community youth organisations that support disadvantaged young people; and young people themselves.

The research affirms the need to conceptualise engagement as an unfolding series of encounters — or potential encounters — between a young person and the vocational training system over time, one that can be shaped far in advance of the young person’s (potential) formal commencement. It proceeds on the assumption that a young person’s knowledge and experiences prior to their encounter with vocational training plays a very significant role in determining their (potential) training outcomes. We thus look within and beyond the confines of the training setting to identify the factors and strategies that can enhance participation and engagement.

Guiding the data collection and analysis is a framework that blends socio-ecological and temporal analyses. In particular, it considers the factors at play prior to commencement, at the ‘moment’ of enrolment and, subsequently, during the actual training experience.

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