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Connection and Relationships at the Centre of Success for Flexible Learning Programs

Mainstream education is failing to meet the needs of a growing percentage of young people. I coordinated a flexible learning program and work alongside people that have led flexible learning schools. We are deeply passionate about their significance for our communities, we have seen them work and have seen the impact of them on communities where they have grown.

I personally attended a flexible learning program when I was 14, my sister attended flexible learning program in her year 10 when she was a ward of the state, delivered through RoseMount Good Shepheard in Marrickville Sydney, it was a life changing opportunity for her.

Working in the social policy space we see so many community organisations campaigning/advocating for their students and young people when the mainstream education system consistently continues to not meet the needs of students and families. Not because of lack of effort or investment, more often than not in our experience we are trying to fit square peg in a round hole.

While every community is unique, what we find is that most organisations are not familiar with 1. how to navigate setting up or delivering an 'alternative education program' or that 2. There is a confidence gap present when more often than not community 100% have the capability to deliver. Particularly when opportunity is present for flexible learning programs to be designed as student centred and often with social and emotional/trauma informed and or culturally centred approach prioritised.

20% of Australian youth are considered "disengaged" with education, with an additional 50,000 who are totally detached from the education system. The rates of disengagement and detachment are much higher for Aboriginal communities with nearly 10 times more students and staff in flexible learning programs (FLP’s) nationwide, than general population (Shay 2017).

FLP’s are a substitute for young people to attain educational credentials (usually a Year 10 equivalent qualification) as well as the confidence, knowledge and skills necessary for work, life and further learning. They use innovative and flexible learning approaches, while also focusing on developing the social and emotional capabilities of each student.

FLP’s can be facilitated through NGO’s, under the auspice of government or non-governernment schools or through RTO’s such as TAFENSW.

There are over 900 programs engaging over 70,000 students each year (Te Riele, 2014) with this figure rising (Watterson & O’Connell, 2019). While they each differ in subjects and outcomes, they usually adopt a student centred and personalised approach that values and develops the young person’s inherent interests and skills.

With the proliferation of FLP’s in Australia over the last decade and the concerning impacts and disruption to learning that the recent pandemic has had on students, comes the opportunity to closely examine what constitutes a successful flexible learning program, how we can adopt key features to outdated models and how to support their sustainability.

Research has identified common objectives, practices and principles that make a program successful (see diagram) (Te Riele 2014) including access to appropriate credentials, personalised learning and the commitment of valued staff. But what seems to lie at the foundation of programs that have the greatest success, are relationships (Watterson & O’Connell, 2019, Shay & Heck, 2015)

Establishing and maintaining strong and positive relationships with students lie central to improved learning outcomes for a number of reasons. Young people with mental health challenges or who experience a lack of support in their personal lives must first “feel safe” in their learning environment to be in a receptive state to engage with their learning. It takes time, effort and consistency on behalf of the FLP staff to cultivate a level of trust for learning to take place.

Relationships are also key for establishing connections in the community that will enrich the program and give the young person an opportunity to see that they have value to add in society. This involves inviting key people and organisations in the local community to be a part of the program for example elders, local industry groups, cultural groups and mentors.

The emphasis on connection and relationships also echoes what we know from best practice research for FLP’s in Aboriginal communities, where relationships lie at the heart of integration of all other key components for successful learning (Shay & Heck, 2015)

Kristy DeBrenni, Principal of Pathways College, a FLP that is devoted to reconnecting young people who have rejected, or been rejected by, mainstream schools and is located across six campuses in Queensland says:

For those students that society has neglected, once reattached and fully supported, they often don’t want to leave upon graduation because, for many, their school has become their family”.

If we can begin to pay attention to what is working in the flexible learning space and the factors known to contribute to successful learning outcomes for young people, we can start to address the underlying barriers that are preventing so many young people from reaching their full educational potential.


Te Riele, K. (2014). Putting the jigsaw together: Flexible learning programs in Australia final report. Dussel- dorp Skills Forum. Sydney, Australia: Retrieved from Victoria-Institue-1--7-MB2.pdfGoogle Scholar

Shay, Marnee & Heck, Deborah (2015) Alternative education engaging Indigenous young people: Flexi schooling in Queensland. The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, 44(1), pp. 37-47.

Shay, M (2017). Counter stories: developing Indigenist research methodologies to capture the voices of Abo- riginal and Torres Strait Islander staff in flexi school contexts’ PhD thesis Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane.

Watterson, J. & O’connell, M. (2019) Those Who Disappear: The Australian education problem nobody wants to talk about. Melbourne Graduate School of Education. University of Melbourne.

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