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Issues In Educational Research, Vol 17, 2007
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Towards a more telling way of understanding early school leaving

David Hodgson
Edith Cowan University
This paper is concerned with research into early school leaving. A narrative interview approach was used to document and analyse the experiences, processes and decisions that a small sample of boys made prior to leaving school, in this case, before completing year 10 and 11. Data collected in 2004 indicate that schools along with students co-construct the decisions and educational pathways that many students find themselves on, pathways which sometimes lead to withdrawal, disengagement, and, finally, leaving school. On the surface, it can appear as though early school leaving is an individualised and rational phenomenon, associated perhaps with easy-to-define events that precipitate the action of leaving school. This paper suggests that early school leaving has contradictory and institutionalised histories, and that 'winnowing' may be an apt metaphor to describe this process.


I just left, just one day there and one day not. (John)[1]
This paper discusses qualitative data from research into early school leaving in which the informants (students who had recently left school in years 9, 10 and 11) described 'what happened' prior to and during the process of their leaving. Within a qualitative methodology, the research methods and data informing this paper paid close attention to informants' perspectives and experiences in order to develop concepts and ideas that could enrich an understanding of early school leaving.

At first glance, the quote from John above suggests that leaving school is perhaps uncomplicated, unitary, and spontaneous, and importantly, his decision. In this paper I suggest it is more helpful to begin to think about school leaving as an institutional and relational process of how students may find themselves being thrust towards the margins, or 'eased out' (Smyth & Hattam, 2004, p.165) of school. There may well be many complicating factors and histories in this process. Thinking about early school leaving in this way means that potential sites for intervention and a possible (re)construction of the student/school experience can be identified and developed. That is, serious attempts to address early school leaving need to be woven into the fabric of the entire educational process.

To begin to illuminate the processes of early school leaving, I suggest that 'winnowing' may be an apt metaphor for orientating analysis, and as such, becomes more telling in terms of how we can understand early school leaving, not simply at the point that it occurs, or after, but before. Most basically, winnowing means "to subject to some process of separating or distinguishing" (Delbridge & Bernard, 1988, p.1165). Winnowing, as a metaphor, invokes images of a gradual but continual process of sifting. It is not as forceful as outright exclusion or streaming (although sometimes this does happen) and may operate unconsciously. It is subtle and ingrained in the everyday practices of schooling. Regardless, the process is teleological, that is, purposeful. It works not so much at the formal and explicit level, but at the informal and implicit, and as such, it becomes entirely useful to understand the 'practices' of early school leaving. This paper draws from the "testimonio" (Beverley, 2003, p.320) of students who offered thoughtful descriptions of their school experiences shortly before leaving school. Metaphorically, winnowing can be used to illuminate the mechanics of early school leaving along the following contours, and these will be discussed in this paper.

Early school leaving

Early school leaving has been described as "one of the most protracted and urgent educational and social policy issues confronting Australia" (Smyth, McInerney, & Hattam, 2003, p.177) and that "Australia has one of the worst current records of retention at the post-compulsory level of any OECD country" (pp.177-178). An early school leaver is defined as one who did not complete the highest level of school, which in Australia, is Year 12 (ABS, 2001, p.99).

Research on early school leaving can be tracked back to the early 1960s in the United States (eg, Cervantes, 1965; Lichter, Rapien, & Seibert, 1962). Early research constructed early school leaving within deficit and individualistic models. For example, Lichter et al's, (1962) study of high school 'drop-outs' in the United States attributed non-completion of school to the ego and emotional psyche of the 'maladjusted' adolescent and his or her inherent failure to adjust to school. Cervantes' (1965) framing is very similar and the conclusions of his study clearly emphasised deficit and dysfunctionality; that is, early school leaving was seen as a failure on the part of the student (Cervantes, 1965, p.196).

Rosier's (1978) study of early school leaving (based on quantitative data collected in the early 1970s) did at least acknowledge a broader framework of causal variables, such as family, school, and age, but still, this lacked a social and political analysis and the stories of young people themselves were distinctly absent from the data.

By the late 1980s, statistics in Australia were reflecting an increase in rates of completion to Year 12 following a number of initiatives to increase school retention (Department of Employment Education and Training, 1987). However, the 1990s saw a downturn in the total proportion of students leaving school before completing year 12 (Lamb, 1998). As Lamb (1998) states, "at its peak in 1992 the national rate of retention to Year 12 was approximately 77 per cent. By 1995 the rate had fallen to 72 per cent" (p.5). The general pattern of declining retention is uneven and appears to be more prominent in government schools and particularly in rural areas (ABS, 2001; Lamb, 1998).

Following the decline in retention, there have been some recent Australian studies into early school leaving (eg, Lamb, 1998; Manni & Kalb, 2003; Marks & McMillan, 2001; Smyth & Hattam, 2002, 2004; Smyth et al., 2000; Teese, 2004). Each of these studies approaches the issue from a different perspective, both methodologically and theoretically. Regardless, an important point demonstrated in much of this research is that there is a range of complex and intersecting factors that impact on the total schooling experience. Some of these were noted in the findings from the evaluation of the full service schools programme (Department of Education Training and Youth Affairs, 2001), which suggested that early school leaving was the results of a complex mix of individual, institutional and socio-cultural factors.

In a report by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER, 1999), it is argued that early school leaving is best seen as an international phenomenon that is irreducible to any particular variables or explanations. There are many reasons why students leave school and not all of these are necessarily negative, and can include everything from a desire to seek employment, issues associated with family functioning, levels of academic skills, structures and cultures of the school, and regional and socio-economic contexts - all of which may shape decisions on whether or not to stay or leave school. In short, early school leaving is complex and entails a decision that "is influenced by factors that are at work for a long period of time" (Manni & Kalb, 2003, p.22).

Recent approaches to early school leaving have focused more broadly on the social context in which it occurs, particularly in relation to social disadvantage. In a study of 209 students conducted in South Australia (Smyth et al, 2000) the researchers located their analysis within the context of globalisation, economic restructuring, school cultures and pedagogy, educational policy, and identity and gender. As well, Smyth et al, (2000) were prepared to listen to the students' voices and stories in their investigation, and in doing so provided important clues for understanding early school leaving (see also Smyth & Hattam, 2001, 2002, 2004).

Concerns about early school leaving

Whereas Marks and McMillan (2001) state that the majority of early school leavers leave to find employment, they provide a useful summary of the evidence regarding which students are more likely to fall into the category of early school leaver. Early school leavers are more likely to be males, from low socio-economic backgrounds, from English speaking backgrounds, live in rural and regional areas, attend government school, and have poor literacy and numeracy skills. There are, understandably, concerns being raised about the rates of retention in Australia. Spierings (2000), for example, is concerned that this broad trend signals a significant precursor to entrenching structures and patterns of ongoing labour market and social disadvantage and argues that successful completion of Year 12 should been seen as the "core benchmark" for attaining "economic and social independence" (Spierings, 2003, p.2). This concern was also noted by the then Minister for Education and Training in Western Australia (Carpenter, 2004), stating that "of those who leave early, up to a third are unemployed in the following year and continue to have difficulties over the next six years" (p.2). This is considered an important argument for raising the school leaving age in Western Australia, based on the assumption that early school leavers are potentially subjected to a plethora of risks, characterised in terms of "significant personal costs for many of these people (including the risk of alienation, lack of self-esteem, homelessness, drug abuse, crime and, in too many cases, suicide)" (Carpenter, 2004, p.7)

The Business Council of Australia (Lahey, 2003) argues that early school leaving leads to not only a financial cost for the individual (in terms of reduced earning potential across a life-time) but also leads to wider social and economic costs in terms of reduced productivity and consumption. Spierings (2003) goes on to identify the social and economic reasons why poor retention (and completion) points to wider social problems and challenges.

Spierings' (2000) concern is not isolated; there is a general tone of urgency and concern over early school leaving, and perhaps even alarm that appears in some of the recent literature (eg, Smyth & Hattam, 2001, 2002, 2004). In short, the concern that is being generated reflects, among other things, a renewal in popular and academic interest in schools, performance, and retention.


In the spirit of engaging with a complex social and political problem, the research discussed here utilised a qualitative methodology informed by the tradition of critical social science (Candy, 1989; Fleming, 1997), in particular, critical ethnography (Harvey, 1990; Thomas, 1993). I drew much of my inspiration for the approach to this study from other research into early school leaving (namely, Smyth & Hattam, 2004; Smyth et al., 2000). In a departure from a one-dimensional and individualistic approach to understanding early school leaving (eg. Cervantes, 1965; Lichter et al, 1962) and as a beginning orientation, the research approach was informed by a critical reading of the socio-political, economic and cultural context of education and young people. Arguably, the context was (and remains) characterised by changing global socio-economic and political circumstances, especially in regard to how these have impacted on schools and on the future possibilities for young people (Apple, 1999, 2000; Cruickshank, 2003; Spierings, 2002).

Thus, the overall approach to the study was an attempt in developing Mills notion of a 'sociological imagination' (Mills, 1959, p.5) in which analysing and understanding early school leaving involves drawing links between personal experiences and wider social and cultural patterns and forces that intersect with them. From this vantage point, it is possible to see early school leaving as part of an economic, political and cultural situation, in which structures of opportunity to redress this problem warrant attention. These structures of opportunity may lie within the broader policy and practice of education as well as the cultural milieu of education and how this intersects with identity, opportunity, discourses about young people, and so on. A focus on early school leaving needs not only to attend to individual troubles, but to those wider structures, patterns and social processes that give rise to them. The research aimed to draw directly from the experiences and perceptions of students who had recently left school to develop a critical language with which to illuminate policy and practice.


A non-probability sampling method (Neuman, 1997) was used to select a small sample of participants - five boys aged between 14-16, who were either in the process of leaving, or had recently left school. Data was collected through a series of interviews with the participants. A narrative approach to unstructured interviews (Holloway & Jefferson, 2000; Way, 1997) was the method of data collection; interviews were in-depth, unstructured, taped and then transcribed. Layered into the process of doing interviews was an epistemological and ethical commitment to "purposeful conversations" (Burgess, 1988, cited in Smyth & Hattam, 2002, p.379) in which there were no pre-set interview questions, but rather a commitment to dialogue around the participants' recent school experience, and their departure from it. Subsequently, the data that was yielded mirrored this approach in its richness, diversity and depth.

The process of coming to understand and communicate the stories and personal experiences of school life posed a number of methodological and conceptual problems, not the least of all, being overwhelmed by the sheer breadth of data from the participants. In an attempt to manage this, I drew from several techniques of data analysis. The first involved becoming immersed in the data (Robson, 2002) and intellectually familiar with it, gradually developing some codes for the various units of meaning evident in the data. These involved highlighting the actual words used by participants that encapsulated the raison d'être of each sentence/statement. Examples of codes included: teacher/student relationships; ignored/dismissed; bullied; feeling despondent and alone.

These codes were eventually developed into a number of larger, simpler themes, but before finalising these, in order to nuance and check the validity of the constructivist nature of the data analysis, I utilised a narrative analysis framework. This framework is a general adaptation of the sociological and sociolinguistic (Cortazzi, 1993) model of narrative analysis originating from Labov's (1972) six part structuring of a narrative (in Coffey & Atkinson, 1996; Cortazzi, 1993, 2001; Reissman, 1993, 2002). This framework suggests that most stories/texts will contain six components: abstract, orientation, complicating action, evaluation, result, and coda (conclusion). In the process of data analysis, I organised the data from all transcripts into the framework and repeated the process of coding and developing themes. This assisted in enriching the analysis, but in also providing a second confirmation of the inductive approach to data analysis.

The conceptual framework that was finally developed in the study provided a way of inferring (Smyth & Hattam, 2004) from the participants' 'testimonio' (Beverley, 2003, p.320) their lived experience of exiting school. To further check my understanding, drafts of the summaries of the data analysis were sent to the participants with phone calls to follow up on the accuracy (or not) of the major themes. All participants contacted indicated that the interpretation of the data was authentic and 'verite' (Garman, 1994, p.3). The total process of data analysis enabled the development of five conceptual and metaphorical themes (Coffey & Atkinson, 1996). These were: school cultures; work and identity; bullying and masculinity; loss of faith; and, winnowing.

While much could be written about each of the major themes developed from the research, it is the latter metaphor, winnowing, that can be layered into the sum total of the other themes. The point of this paper is to work back from the metaphor of winnowing as a way of bringing a fresh reading into the data. The follow section aims to highlight some of these ideas, by presenting some selected excerpts of the data, and discussing how and why they are useful to enabling a more telling way of understanding early school leaving.

Voices of early school leaving

I had Mr Smith in year eight. He was really a good teacher, he was just really calm and patient, and he was always just looking out for everyone, and Mr Williams, he was a good teacher because he was so enthusiastic; he always wanted to make things as fun as possible. But we had one teacher, Miss Jones, who would just go ballistic; she would have a few bad mood swings. She would like to single you out in front of everyone else and also, my recent maths teacher, he wasn't very good because he kind of makes fun of you if you made mistakes and stuff, and that's not good. He would just go "I've already explained that, you should know that" so everyone could hear, that sort of thing. Mr Brown, he had a really big go at me in the computer room. Me and my mate were mucking around, you know, we probably deserved to be told off - I did. But, he called me up in front of the class and came up to me so that he was about that far away from my face (holds hands up about 10 centimetres apart) and said "what's your name?" in a joking voice and I just answered back jokingly and then he would suddenly go serious and go "don't be smart with me" so you kind of don't know what he is playing at. It was like him mucking around and then him getting really cross. And then he was saying, "Right I'm going to tell your teacher that you've been mucking around" and stuff like that and starting to yell at me, and really eyeballing me. (Stuart)
Part of what is important in understanding early school leaving is seeing the way that the school corpus operates, perhaps unconsciously, to separate, organise and categorise students into various groupings, labels, and so on. Schools are cultural spaces and imbued with certain kinds of power strategies, or what Foucault (1988) refers to as the micro strategies of power or 'technologies of the self' (p.18) in which control over social space and bodies is attempted and resisted. The extract above from Stuart is arguably about power and relationships, and how these are constituted and resisted in various ways. The role that schools, as institutions, play in creating certain kinds of subjects, through discursive and other normalising practices, is a powerful one in constructing hierarchical and oppositional categories of the subject (Martino & Pallotta-Chiarolli, 2003). These categories produce core/periphery dynamics where some of the school processes and acceptable student identities are centred on a normative core and others are consigned to the margins.

For Stuart, the processes and politics of acceptable conduct were contradictory and hard to 'read'. He described his experience of being in school as exhausting; the intellectual and emotional labour of trying to navigate and negotiate tricky formations of power through relationships, with teachers and other students, was significant, and in the end, were outweighed by the perceived benefits of leaving. In short, for Stuart, school eventually became a 'drag' on his time and energy. Thinking about this as winnowing shows some of the processes by which this occurred (eg, the interactions with his teachers) but importantly was the way that Stuart's view that school was a 'drag' grew. It was constructed and enabled over time. The kinds of interpersonal interactions that Stuart describes were not unique. They constituted the relational fabric of the school.

Resistance and the school environment

Shor (1992) and Gillett (Gillett, 1993) both identify mechanisms operating in school environments that are anti-democratic, disempowering, and alienating for students, inviting their resistance, withdrawal and disengagement. Consider the following statements from my study.

David:Tell me what school was like for you?
Robert:Hated it, can't take it; adults that I have never known telling me what to do, I just can't hack it.
David:So what was it in particular that you really didn't like?
Robert:A couple of teachers that were full on telling me what to do.

Robert's perception of the school environment, for better or worse is encapsulated in this example. According to Robert, he practised forms of resistance that were socially unacceptable, such as physical violence and sabotage of the classroom. Throwing chairs and verbal abuse of teachers were common practices. Eventually he left school. Smyth and Hattam (2004) explain that practices like Robert's can be common when students do not understand how to "make organized demands for change" (p.80).

While no-one would condone such behaviour, it is important however to begin to understand Robert's perception of the school environment through attempting to grasp the question, how did Robert come to hate school? Part of the answer may be found in his assertion that it was due to "a couple of teachers that were full on telling me what to do". This is indicative, perhaps, of a mode of relating to students which created a fertile space for resistance and subsequently, withdrawal. In other words, such statements speak of a particular kind of context in which capacity for mutual relationships have collapsed.

While Robert reacted to school violently and aggressively, for Stuart it was much different.

I didn't really know what I was going to do. I was just really confused, you know, very anxious all the time; feeling drained all the time. It was a pretty bad school. The kids treated me pretty badly, but not just me: everyone treated everyone badly, and a lot of backstabbing, you know, just a lot of politics really. (Stuart)
For Stuart, like Robert, the process of leaving school consisted of a range of institutional and interpersonal antecedents. They were made of myriad interactions between himself, other students and teachers. In describing his school experience as one of being riddled with backstabbing and politics, Stuart could explain the increasing dread associated with getting up every day and getting to school. As the feeling grew so did the desire to leave. In the end, as he explained, he left to "get as much experiences in all the different things that I can and just find something that I want to do and I really like, and I want to be able to do it and not have any regrets" (Stuart). In this case, 'regrets' referred to remaining in school.

This is the important point about winnowing, in that a responsible analysis of early school leaving foregrounds Robert's and Stuart's institutional and other experiences as a way of understanding not only their behaviours, different as they are, but the antecedents to leaving school. In Robert's case, his disdain for authority, and in Stuart's, that school became exhausting and over-bearing.

Geography of trust and reciprocity

Well first you got the bully problem. That has been going on ever since I got there. I'm definitely not the only one with problems. And other parents are also pulling their kids out, so I'm not really the only one doing it (leaving school). They (teachers and staff) don't do anything, they're just like, watching us die off or something; they just watch us. They don't listen to us very often. There's problems with the other students they don't do anything about it. They don't really help very much. They just say "yep yep" and they say they'd do something about it but they don't, they just leave it. I tried to go to the students' place. There is a desk there for people who are going to talk and organise things. There was a lady there 'cos all the teachers were at lunch, and she told me to come back another time because, I don't know, she was just too busy, and I said "it's an emergency" and she said "no I can't help you, you just have to go back". It was like "**** you, just do things yourself", and I just had to hide away from people, and become isolated. (John)
It is unfortunate (although some would suggest inevitable and necessary) that simple binaries between student and teacher become rigidly constructed and reproduced within notions of educational acceptability, or, what becomes common and normalised acceptable discourse which contributes to the logic and functioning of the school. Binaries such as teacher/student, expert/novice, powerful/powerless, adult/child, controller/controlled, responsible/irresponsible, us/them serve certain functions and are never far from the power that is invested in establishing and reinforcing such binaries. These can become unhelpful when a widening gulf of understanding and communication between separate categories of people develops. It can lead to a loss of trust. The 'us and them' distinction between teacher and students can often be clearly discerned. In John's account, it was 'they', meaning teachers, who were dismissive and non-responsive of 'us', meaning students - insofar as this pertained to John's need for safety. In John's case, the need was protection from protracted, overt, violence. The following extracts are examples of this.
They don't do anything, they're just like, watching us die off or something; they just watch us.

Well they don't actually do anything for all of us, we just handle it ourselves; they don't really help very much, they just say 'yep yep' and...they say they'd do something about it but they don't they just leave it.

I also get bullied in class too, the teacher's in the same class but doesn't do anything either ... The teacher doesn't do anything, he just continues on. It's a very corrupt school in a way. (John)

John was sensitive to being ignored by his teachers and, from his point of view, left to 'fend for himself. His statement that the school was 'corrupt' may well be indicative of the way John's concerns were "invariably construed as the individual responsibility of the student" (Smyth & Hattam, 2004, p.168). But in contradiction to this expectation of responsibility, there appeared to be a lack of opportunities for developing and acknowledging, or even recognising the various kinds of capital (Smyth & Hattam, 2004, p.164) needed to actually exercise such responsibilities. Although John indicated that he sought assistance from the school to help manage the bullying, inevitably the final responsibility seemed to be on John's shoulders (for example, he was prescribed anti-depressants). This example highlights an absence of sensitivity to establishing "trust and respect for young lives" (Smyth & Hattam, 2004, p.164). For John, it was indicative of the overall geography of relationships within the school, or the terrain by which people are organised, categorised and related to.

In this example, I suggest, the gap between John and the school grew with every physical assault he experienced, until leaving became entirely sensible. One thing that became clear to me was that it was not so much the bullying that drove John out of school in year nine: it was what the school did, or did not do about the bullying that was the crucial factor. In terms of winnowing, this may be crudely summarised as follows.

IncidentJohn's actionSchool responseWinnowing
movement out
of school
Bullied in school yardExpected some kind of interventionNone+ 1
BulliedSpoke to DoctorPrescribed anti-depressants+ 1
BulliedSpoke to year coordinatorUnclear+ 1
BulliedSpoke to school psychologistTold to be 'optimistic'+ 1
BulliedWent to student roomTold to 'come back later'+ 1
Bullied in classExpected interventionNone+ 1
Felt illWent to school nurseTold to 'come back later'+ 1

In this simple table, each +1 signifies an additional cumulative movement out of school. For John, none of these events were disconnected, innocuous, isolated experiences. They were parts in the whole of John's view and feelings about school, neatly encapsulated in the following statements.

I was too scared to go to school, because of all the stuff and something worse could happen to me, you know.

I just left; just one day there and one day not. (John)

Leaving school is a process with historical antecedents

As mentioned, there are many complicating factors in the decisions to leave school, and these are not necessarily simple, contained, or easy to articulate. In many ways, the decision to leave school may be a decision that grows, over time, until the actual act of leaving appears to be spontaneous and unplanned. For example,

David:So, tell me about the decision to leave.
John:I just left; just one day there and one day not. Just thought '*** em I'm not doing it any more' and, just, yeah, left.

One could conclude from John's statement: 'He decided one day to leave school'. But such a reduction would belie the history of John's decision. For all five boys in this study, the decision to leave school had two characteristics: (i) the decision grew over a period of time; and (ii) there were events - either one in particular or in a series - that precipitated or solidified the 'growing' decision. These events were easier for the boys to name; they were more concrete, tangible and amenable to expression in words. In other words, a critical incident or incidents may have been the ostensible reason for leaving, but such incidents were underpinned by a history of disillusionment or resentment. Eventually a point was reached when leaving seemed the only option.

Within their respective histories, each boy made more or less concerted and active efforts to remain in school. In fact, in some cases it seemed as though the boys were working harder to stay in school than the school was working to keep them there. However, when they did leave the official, bureaucratic response did not waiver. For example, when John left school the Education Department was quick to move with letters advising of his legal requirements to be there.

And then came the notes saying I had to go to school. We sent them a note ages ago saying that I wasn't going to school 'cos of the problems and it took them at least two or three months to actually message back.
It is interesting to think about this scenario in the following terms. First, John felt unsupported by his school. In his mind, it failed to protect him from harm. He expressed that he tried to get the school to respond to his needs many times. Second, and rather paradoxically, when he did leave, the act of leaving was framed as his choice and responsibility, and the letters from the Education Department held him and his family accountable.

'They'd just talk so much about nothing'

Well, I was wagging so much that there was no need to go back to school because I would wag more than I went to school, which is like, no use going to school. So mum decided, "that's it, I'm pulling you out of school". She gave me heaps of chances to go back to school but all those chances were blown 'cos I just didn't want to go to. I didn't like any of the teachers. Some teachers were all right, but, I was bored. It was boring at school. It was boring in that all I did was sit there and we did mostly nothing. You would listen and you would fall asleep sometimes because they'd just talk so much about nothing. (Peter)
As discussed, it is often difficult to clearly name one's experiences in an institutional environment. Peter, who had been absent from school extensively, was able to explain why he sought to avoid being in the classroom. But it took some time for him to find suitable words. The following is an amalgamation of his statements given over a one-hour discussion, which, when taken together, express the basis of his reasoning about avoiding school:
I was bored
It was boring at school
It was boring in that all I did was sit there

We did mostly nothing
Listening to the teachers
Listen and listen and fall asleep
They'd just talk so much about nothing

I was wagging so much
I would wag
I would wag more than I went to school

I did a bit of work and then
I said, 'Oh this is boring' and then
I just left

Sometimes I didn't want to go
Because I couldn't ask any teachers questions
Because I'd be too scared to put my hand up and ask for things
Because I was more behind than everyone else

I don't think I want to go back

Smyth and Hattam (2004) refer to the notion of 'uninspiring pedagogy' (p.178) in which the teaching practices appear to be quite disconnected from students' particular educational needs. What Peter described in his interview was the extent to which he experienced school as boring drudgery, but importantly his way of managing the boredom, which was to remove himself from it by wagging extensively. The school and the Education Department argued, however, that Peter should be removed and excluded from the school because of his truancy. That is, truancy was seen as the cause of the problem, not the symptom. Yet for Peter, truancy was the solution, the pedagogy was the problem.

Another student, Jason, remained visibly present in the classroom, even though his commitment to what he saw as irrelevant curriculum progressively waned. Jason began the interview by discussing his and his teachers' perceptions that his grades were too low to be salvaged. Ostensibly, this was his reason for leaving school. Later in the interview he talked about the lack of subject choice in the school, and, importantly, about his clear sense that school was preventing him from achieving his longer term goals.

David:So when you left school, you thought, "I'm leaving school, I'm going to go to TAFE"?
Jason:I was just thinking "I'm leaving school. This isn't working. I'll try something else". I knew what I wanted to do and then got to go and do it. I just thought "Yeah, leave".
David:But at the same time, you didn't really want to be there?
Jason:Well, I pretty much did until a year ago. When I was there, it wasn't like I didn't want to be there, it's just that, I couldn't really do anything there.
David:Right, what does that mean, couldn't really do anything there?
Jason:Well my grades were so low they couldn't actually rescue me.
David:It sounds like what you're saying is that a lot of what the school was offering, wasn't really where you were thinking about heading in the future?
Jason:Yeah, not really. I wanted to do all the TEE subjects that I was doing and I was pretty assured that I could actually do them, still am now.
David:Let me ask this question, why didn't you do them?
Jason:I don't know, I don't think I actually had any motivation to try. And then half way through this year I realised that it wasn't actually what I wanted to do so I may as well start trying to achieve what I actually do ...

According to Teese (2004), there are two major reasons underpinning early school leaving: 1) economic imperatives and a demand for paid work; and 2) the experiences students have in school. In terms of the latter, Teese claims these are characterised by a "combination of poor social integration and low achievement [which] drives many young people from school" (p.186) in which the bonds that tie people to a commitment to school weaken and students "may compensate by searching outside school for recognition and independence" (Teese, 2004, p.187).

In Jason's case, not only were there push factors in his decision to leave school (poor relationships with teachers and perceptions about his academic ability) but also pull factors (a clear sense of his future in employment, which no longer required school). However, an important point raised by Jason was that his motivation to try diminished over time, especially when he developed a sense that he was not welcome in the school. This perception was based on some of the subtle and not so subtle messages picked up and internalised over a period of time.

Tacit invitations to please leave quietly

The systemic messages sent by the school system to some students regarding the expectations for them to participate in school can be ambiguous, leaving doubts as to whether or not a student may be welcome in the system. Peter discussed the 'relationship' his family had with the Education Department now that he had left school. When Peter left it was a legal requirement for him to still be in school. On the other hand, the lack of clarity and length of time it took the Education Department to address the legalities of Peter's non-attendance sent different messages.

Peter:[The Education Department] still wanted me to go back to school. I wanted to get a job, but I'm too young to.
David:And once you've got work, there is no longer any reason to be in school, as far as the Education Department goes?
Peter:I don't know. I don't think I have to go back. If I get a job I don't think I have to go back to school, I mean I might but I don't know if I do.
David:So you're not going to XXX (original school), you're going to XXX (new school).
Peter:Well, in the words of mum I have to go to XXX (new school) I'm not allowed back at XXX (original school).
David:Right OK, so when is that going to happen?
Peter:Whenever I get these papers from XXX (new school).

While Peter was no longer welcome at his school, due to his prolonged truancy, he was nonetheless legally required to attend a school. But the messages being sent to validate both the requirement and the invitation to return to school were protracted and ambiguous. At this point in the interview, Marion, Peter's mother, interjected explaining that they had been waiting several weeks for some clarity around Peter's educational status.

Marion:They (Education Department) were supposed to send them (the papers) out but they still haven't arrived. One of the school ladies rang me up and asked me what was going on. I said "I'm waiting for the papers"...so she said she'll ring them to hurry them up, 'cos the main thing is for him to get back into school, so yeah.
David:It's a bit of a waiting game?
Marion:Yes, it's a bit of a waiting game 'cos I also got to have an interview on top of that, with them at XXX (new school) before he can get in.
David:What's the interview for?
Marion:I wouldn't have a clue.

The drift of time and the lack of clarity served as an important, if not perhaps unintended, epistemic function. School was not the right option for Peter and looking elsewhere for learning opportunities would be more fruitful. As the length of time grew, Peter and his mother began discussing the merits of finding employment, or seeking some kind of vocational training. Meanwhile, school faded into the background as an unfortunate experience in one's life. This is worrying if we consider the consequences of early school leaving. According to Teese (2004) these consequences are increased likelihood of ongoing unemployment and, depending on the extent of how negative their school experience was, a potential reduction in identifying with the values of democracy, citizenship, and "individual enterprise and initiative" (p.189).

Explicit invitations to leave

Arguably, the extract above indicated a statutory response (letters, interviews, etc) that Peter was required and/or welcome in the school system. However, the lack of clarity and lengthy delays in fully communicating this may be interpreted otherwise.

For Jason, however, the invitation to leave was much clearer. Jason was, however, in year 11 and there was at the time no legal requirement for him to remain in school as he was 15.

Jason:Well my grades were so low they couldn't actually rescue me.
David:So having grades so low that they couldn't be rescued, did you think that there was no point continuing?
Jason:Yeah, there wasn't.
David:Was that view shared by some of your teachers? Did they talk to you about that?
Jason:Yeah, all of them.
David:What did they say?
Jason:They all said, basically, "Go".

For Jason, the school in some way had decided that he was already a casualty and it might be better for him to leave it behind and move on. The micro strategies of this began by excluding him from class, and yet, as Jason claimed, he was not fully aware of why this was happening to him. At the point of Jason's decision to leave school, a critical factor was the act of being removed from class and the sense that he was not welcome there anyway.

David:So what was actually happening at the time when you decided "No I'm not going to do this anymore, I'm leaving"?
Jason:Well, I was getting removed from a lot of my classes, two of them consistently. I'm not really sure why, because there was one that I was actually getting removed from class, and I am not really sure why I was not given a chance to get back in.
David:The decision to leave school, was that pretty much your choice, your decision? How has that been reacted to by people around you?
Jason:Well, apparently a couple of teachers were elated...Apparently they didn't like me as much as they were putting on.

The penultimate moment in Jason's decision to leave school was the direct comments suggesting it would be a good idea for him to go. However, these statements simply added weight and legitimacy to his prior view that school was a "waste of time".

Ordering, status and competition

Commenting on the different hierarchical academic levels, Stuart noted that some levels of his academic work were not treated seriously and were given a reduced status. In particular, some groups of students in the so-called 'lower' levels were not afforded the same academic opportunities and status as their more highly ranked counterparts. Pomeroy (1999) explains how this hierarchy operates.
Inter-relationships in the school are framed by a hierarchy of worth. The hierarchy ... consists of teachers at the top, [some students] at the bottom, and 'more able' or 'better behaved' students between themselves and the teachers (p.476).
For Stuart, however, the lowly status of some of the work emptied it from its academic and learning potentials.
I think the different levels is a good idea but I don't think the way they do it is good. Basically, they just didn't give us as much work to do as the other kids, they just cut down the levels of work and just taught us, they taught us the same stuff, just, we were just a bit behind, from the other people, but, we didn't get marked as hard, but we probably should have got. We did pointless things like make games and stuff like that. We didn't think the work was that. It was just a bit stupid.
Stuart was conscious of the stigma of doing lower level work and noticed the pointlessness of it. The combination of a class that was firstly devalued in the "hierarchy of worth" (Pomeroy, 1999, p.476) and secondly was 'pointless' and 'stupid', for Stuart at least, did not invite commitment and engagement, let alone retention.

Losing faith: From optimism to resignation

In the interviews I asked the boys if they had thought about going to other schools, or trying to work within the environment they were in somehow. In this way, I was exploring whether the boys considered themselves to have some power or agency within the school. What tended to emerge were two stories. Firstly, the boys did consider themselves initially as being active agents within their school. At the least, they once believed that the school would act honourably towards them and their learning goals and remained active participants in this process. Secondly, during a period of one to two years (typically in years eight and nine) this view gradually eroded and was replaced with a sense of hopelessness and a picture of the school as an immovable juggernaut. Absolute statements such as 'always' 'never' 'they don't' 'it would be worse' were characteristic responses to my questions regarding change.

David:Did you think at all about transferring to another school?
Stuart:Yeah, quite a lot yeah. It was just, you know, moving to another school half way through year eleven, it was just a bit, I don't know, just didn't want to. I did, but I was just too worried about it. It could have been worse.
David:Did you think about changing schools?
John:It would have been worse because XXX (another high school) there are other bullies there even worse. I tried to go to XXX (another high school) but I didn't really feel alright there because, I know I was going to get picked on there too.

Research conducted in the late 1990s indicates that students generally, but boys particularly, are not especially optimistic about the future, especially in relation to work, the environment and social problems (Ainley, Batten, Collins, & Withers, 1998). This is despite the fact that schools have "a future orientation because they are concerned with preparing young people to participate in future society and providing them with the capacity to shape that future" (Ainley et al., 1998, p.109). The capacity and willingness to participate implies democracy and the capacity to shape implies agency and autonomy. Unfortunately, the research by Ainley et al, (1998) indicated that many year 10 students (60% in their study) did not see themselves as having the ability to shape the future. This was certainly the sense that was being communicated to me by the five boys in my study. A big part of their decision to leave school was brought on by a sense that there was no space for participation in the key decisions that affected them, and they had a corresponding belief that they had little to no agency in such environments. This might account for the pessimism they felt about moving to another school (worse, the same, no point, etc).

A sense of powerlessness and hopelessness could be discerned from the interviews, even though these feelings were not directly stated. They could be inferred from some of the accounts, and from the body language and tone of voice used in describing school. As mentioned, the boys seemed to indicate a growing despair with the school environment, which they found to be closed and disavowing of their voice or input. Given this view, it is perhaps not surprising they chose to leave.

John, for example, expressed his view of school with tinges of sadness, as a sense of hope and optimism gradually disintegrated into pessimism and despair.

(tearily) I actually thought that high school would be better, (than primary school) but it wasn't, it's just worse. XXX (the high school) is really unhygienic. There's rubbish everywhere, there's stuff on the walls everywhere. In the toilets there's sh** on the walls and stuff I've seen a couple of times, you know, someone tried to make a bomb in there too.
While John was quite articulate in naming how he saw the many problems of the school, I wondered if he had an idea of what it would look like if it was okay. His response again indicated the view that schools are and always will be the way he has experienced them.

David:What could they have done differently to make it OK?
John:I don't know really, can't like tell them what to do, they won't exactly do it, not that people like being told what to do.
David:But rather than telling them what to do, if they were to just do it, what would a good class look like?
John:I wouldn't know.
David:Never seen what you think is a good class?
John:There never will be a good class, there's always something in it to spoil it.

According to John, any attempts by the school to manage the bullying that plagued his school experience appeared to be cursory, as were the attempts to keep him in school. The bullying and violence, the lack of intervention, and the school ascetics created a winnowing effect in which, over time, John became less involved in a commitment to staying in school, and more determined to get out of it; and this was common for all five boys in the study.


The social, political and economic imperatives to address worse than average retention rates remain. There has been a decline in retention rates in Australia during 1990s. The current literature on early school leaving contends that early school leaving is best seen as a complex phenomenon that is irreducible to any single or categorical explanation. Some of the ostensible reasoning behind early school leaving, are that students are compelled to leave school to find other educational or work pathways, or pushed due to issues to do with school itself (Teese, 2004). The existing research based on quantitative data characterises who are more likely to fall into the category of early school leaver and what are some of the broad based reasons for leaving (ABS, 2001; Lahey, 2003; NCVER, 1999).

This paper, however, has explored early school leaving from the leavers' perspective, in the form of 'testimonio' (Beverley, 2003, p.320) and framed its theorising around the metaphor of 'winnowing'. It is suggested here that early school leaving is, in part, an institutional phenomenon that has a range of historical antecedents, and that using winnowing, as a metaphor, assists in reflecting upon how rather than why it is that some students become drawn into, and to some extent, unwittingly contribute to a complex process of leaving school. Winnowing, as a metaphor, can help identify more telling ways of understanding early school leaving by drawing attention not simply at the point that it occurs, or after, but before. In particular, this approach can assist in highlighting how seemingly innocuous sets of experiences, interactions and processes which make up the total school experience may point to future patterns and pathways of early school leaving. In this paper I have explained that these occur within the kinds of relationships and experiences which students have with each other, with educators, and with the total logic of education. These include the capacity (or not) to feel included, responded to, to have one's particular learning and educational needs understood and respectfully responded to, and to have a say in their educational experiences.

This analysis implicates the structures and cultures of schooling in the challenges of adequately thinking about and responding to early school leaving. This is especially significant in understanding the way that power operates in schools to produce particular kinds of cultures and identities, and how these are resisted, reconstructed and bypassed by some students, and how this in turn may lead to a growing pessimism and loss of faith in school as a legitimate and meaningful place to be.


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  1. Pseudonyms are used throughout this paper.

Author: David Hodgson is Associate Lecturer in Social Work at the Faculty of Regional Professional Studies, Edith Cowan University, in Bunbury, Western Australia. He has conducted research into boys education and early school leaving and has taught and published in the areas of sociology, ethics, and globalisation. Email: d.hodgson@ecu.edu.au

Please cite as: Hodgson, D. (2007). Towards a more telling way of understanding early school leaving. Issues In Educational Research, 17(1), 40-61. http://www.iier.org.au/iier17/hodgson.html

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