You are on page 1of 6

On the Edge of Adulthood: Young people's school and

out-of-school experiences at 16
Competent Children, Competent Learners is a longitudinal study which began in 1993
and follows the progress of a sample of around 500 New Zealand young people from
early childhood education through schooling and beyond. This is the main report from
the age-16 phase of the study and details students’ participation in school, their
experiences of learning, and their achievement in terms of the study’s competency
measures and their NCEA results. It also describes overall patterns of family life,
friendships and interests out of school at age 16.

5. The school leavers

We have data from 27 school leavers, and 28 parents of school leavers (one parent
agreed to an interview, but their child did not). Fifty-four percent of the school leavers
were male, and 46 percent, female: the same proportions for male and female as
among the school stayers. Forty-four percent of the school leavers came from sole-
parent families, cf. 14 percent of the school stayers (the proportions of those from
blended families was similar for both groups). A third of the school leavers identified
themselves as Māori (including some who also identified as NZ European), cf. 12
percent of the school stayers. Four-fifths were still living at home with their parent(s).

The young people were: in employment (44 percent), studying (41 percent), looking for
work (22 percent), looking after their own child (4 percent), or doing nothing (7 percent).

Parent and young persons’ views of the reasons for leaving school at age 16 are given
below. The reasons are more “push” (from school) than “pull” (toward a definite
alternative). Note also that parents may not always know that their child had got into
trouble at school.

Table 29: Reasons for leaving school at age 16


Young person Parent
Reason (n = 27) (n = 28)
% %
To take up a specific job/apprenticeship 15 11
To do a specific education/training course 11 14
Did not get qualification desired 4 0
Was bored/not learning anything/no challenge 48 46
Could not study what wanted to at school 7 11
Didn’t like teachers 33 43
Got into trouble at school 30 14
Moved to another town 4 7
Other 36 19
Other reasons given by ex-students included moving schools (11 percent), personal
reasons, and being unhappy at school. Parents mentioned that their child had found
schoolwork too hard (11 percent), or had been depressed (14 percent); friends,
contesting parental authority, and wagging school were also mentioned.

Three-quarters of the young people were happy with what they were doing; 19 percent
were sometimes happy, and 4 percent were unhappy. What they liked best about what
they were doing was having freedom, earning money, learning, taking on more
responsibility, but not having homework or school. What they didn’t like was in some
ways the reverse: they missed learning, got bored or lonely, worried about money and
friendships, or didn’t like some aspects of their work. When we asked them if they
agreed with a series of statements about the best things for them about leaving school,
the item they most strongly agreed with (48 percent) was “not having teachers hassle
me”. Other aspects that they strongly agreed with were earning money, having more
freedom to choose what to do, making their own decisions about life, getting a job or
studying what they wanted, learning things that seemed relevant and real life. Thirty-
seven percent wished they were doing something different from what they were
currently doing, not wanting to be unemployed, wanting a different job—but only one
wished they had stayed at school to gain qualifications in that environment. Most of the
young people were optimistic that they could change what they no longer liked.

However, when we asked them what might stop them having the kind of life they
wanted, two-thirds mentioned not having qualifications, or lack of relevant work
experience; 59 percent also mentioned not having the necessary skills.

Sixty-four percent of the school leavers’ parents thought they were enjoying what they
were doing. A quarter thought they had mixed feelings, and 4 percent that they were
missing school. A third thought their child wished they were doing something different
from what they were now doing, and 18 percent did not know whether that was so.
Thirty-nine percent rated their child’s ability to cope with life after school as a 4 or 5 on a
5-point scale. Two-thirds of the parents also wished their child was doing something
different from what they were doing: half of these wished their child had stayed at
school. In general, parents’ ratings of their child’s levels of responsibility, self-efficacy,
and to a lesser extent, self-confidence, were lower for the school leavers than for the
school stayers.

Already disengaged: are school leavers’ experiences and values different from
those who stay at school after age 16?

Two years earlier, when they were 14, those who had left school by age 16 had lower
average levels of school engagement and motivation: 67 percent had low motivation
levels cf. 30 percent of the school stayers. These differences probably stem from
consistently lower scores on our mathematics and literacy measures, starting at age 5,
before they reached school (see Hodgen, 2007 for the details). The difference in
average scores for literacy also widened after age 8. Scores on the attitudinal measures
(other than, interestingly, social skills with adults) did not start to be lower than those
who stayed at school at age 16 until age 6: after the first year of school, and, probably,
struggles with the core school work of literacy and mathematics started to dent
confidence in the school environment. The difference in attitudinal scores remained
much the same for the school stayers and leavers up to age 10: but it then grew much
larger at ages 12 and 14. This change starting before they started secondary school
may be because of the cumulative difficulties of school work, greater awareness of how
they were doing compared with others, and also as they started to be able to do more
with friends, to experience other worlds where school work could matter less.

At age 16, money and wearing the right clothes or looking coolmattered more to those
who had already left school than those who remained. Not surprisingly, they were less
concerned with doing well at school. But they were also less concerned about sport (an
indication perhaps that even though secondary school offers more ready opportunities
to take part in sport, this does not offer enough of an incentive to some students to
remain). The other differences apparent in Table 30 below are not statistically
significant, during to the small number of school leavers in this sample.

Table 30: Values for school leavers and school stayers


Left school
Still at school (n = 421)
Most important things (n = 27)
%
%
Enjoying the things I do 52 55
Doing well at school 33 56
Being with family/ whänau /fono 44 32
Money to spend 74 29
Having lots of friends 26 26
Being helpful or kind 15 23
Doing well at sport 7 22
Good sense of humour 15 22
Doing well at an interest outside school 0 10
Wearing the right clothes/looking cool 22 9
Going to church 0 6
Good looking 7 5
Having the latest things 4 2

Future values

We also asked the sample to tell us which three things from a list of 12 would be most
important to them as an adult. These tell us something about what adulthood looks like
to young people, as well as their underlying values. There are fewer differences
between school leavers and stayers when it comes to thinking of the future. The school
leavers did think that having lots of money would be important to them (56 percent cf.
25 percent of school stayers), and were less interested in a good education (11 percent
cf. 30 percent).

Just under half the school leavers wished they had had more guidance on the subjects
or options they took at secondary school, and a further 15 percent were unsure: a total
of 59 percent cf. 27 percent of school stayers. A third said that better guidance would
have led them to take subjects that let them do something different now, or kept
pathways open; a fifth did not like what they chose, 15 percent had not liked their
teachers, and 7 percent were sceptical about the value of more guidance, since there
had not been enough subject choice at their school.

What would they like to have been different about school? They would like:

• More choice of subjects (37 percent)


• To have behaved differently, have a different attitude (37
percent)
• To have better teachers (26 percent)
• Changes in a particular subject (22 percent)
• More freedom (19 percent).

But 15 percent said nothing would make school better for them: they thought it was a
waste of time.

Interests

School-leavers were more likely than those still at school to report friendships as one of
their main interests (82 percent cf. 51 percent), cars/machinery (22 percent cf. 9
percent), and alcohol (19 percent cf. 2 percent). They were less likely to report
organised sport (15 percent cf. 55 percent), computer activities or digital games (11
percent cf. 31 percent), or performing arts (4 percent cf. 25 percent) as among their
main interests.

On average, they spent similar amounts of time watching television a day (both groups
had a median time of two hours a day), and the TV programmes they enjoyed were
similar.

They were more likely to come from homes with less than 100 books (52 percent cf. 20
percent of school stayers), less likely to use a public library (22 percent cf. 60 percent),
or to enjoy reading (22 percent cf. 52 percent of school stayers). School-stayers were
more likely to use the library to get books for their own interest (41 percent cf. 15
percent of school leavers)—but also used it to get books for schoolwork (46 percent) or
to study (27 percent). Sixty-three percent of the school leavers did not enjoy writing, cf.
43 percent of the school stayers.

Most still lived at home, and were just as likely as the school stayers to have rules about
their use of time, phones, ICT, driving, dress, language, and where they met their
friends. They were somewhat more likely to have more latitude around the time they
should be home, when they went to bed, and their use of alcohol. If they broke their
parental rules, they were less likely than the school stayers to face consequences other
than being told off.

They did much the same things with their friends with four notable differences: they
were much less likely to go out to entertainment (19 percent cf. 60 percent of school
stayers), or participate in organised sport (4 percent cf. 26 percent); and much more
likely to go out with no fixed agenda (57 percent cf. 28 percent), and drink alcohol (37
percent cf. 5 percent). They were more likely to value friendships because they were
longlasting (30 percent cf. 13 percent); and to mention as a drawback that there could
be competition with their friends (15 percent cf. 5 percent). They were less likely to
refrain from doing something their friends wanted them to do, but their parents did not
(22 percent cf. 45 percent).

Seventy-one percent still saw their friends from school; and these friendships were just
as likely to be as solid or extending as the school stayers’: where they differed was that
their friends were more likely to be getting into trouble, and involved in activities with
some risk: alcohol and drug use, smoking cigarettes, unsafe sex; and they were
somewhat less likely to trust their friends.

They were more likely to fall in love, have sex, break up with a romantic partner than the
school stayers, experience family breakup, change where they were living, experience
health problems, drink alcohol, get hassled or bullied, get into physical fights, get into
trouble, including with the police, lose control of their temper, and be hassled about their
sexuality. The latter may indicate a higher proportion of gay and lesbian young people
who left school early. If so, it would be consistent with reports about negative school
experiences for this group. It is of concern that they continued to feel hassled about
their sexuality beyond school, particularly if that was a reason for leaving school early.

Parents of school leavers were less likely to think they were generally happy (39
percent cf. 86 percent of school stayers’ parents), and more likely to think they were
unsettled by something (61 percent cf. 44 percent of school stayers’ parents) They
showed more concerns: 32 percent were concerned about five or more of the 14 areas
we asked about, cf. 4 percent of the school stayers. Only 29 percent had no concerns at
all, cf. 59 percent of the parents of school stayers. Their level of concern was higher for
every area we asked about, other than school behaviour. Just under half thought their
child had left school before they were ready to do so; and a third were worried about
their child’s life choices or choice of work/study. Some aspects where parents of school
leavers were three or four times more likely to note a particular concern were around
their child having unsuitable friends, or loneliness, a lack of interests, or unsuitable
interests, getting into trouble, having relationships that included sex, being reckless, and
using illegal substances. They were twice as likely to contest parental authority. Yet
parental concern about their child being disengaged in interests or giving up was much
the same for the school stayers and school leavers.

The school leavers’ views of their relationships with their parents were generally similar
to the views of those who were still at school, but they were less likely to trust their
father (almost half were in sole-parent families) or feel their father would know if they
were upset, and somewhat more likely to think that their family checked that they were
doing what they needed to do.

If they had younger siblings, they were less likely to teach them about something, or
take them out; but they were more likely than school stayers to do things with their
siblings, share interests, and play games together.
They were more likely than the school stayers to mention employment, taking care of
themselves, or a skills-related achievement as things they were proud they had done
over the past year, and less likely than the school stayers to mention academic, sports,
or arts achievements.

Thus, on the whole, we see a different kind of learning identity among the school
leavers. Some young people felt a positive pull from learning opportunities that they
could not have at school, raising questions about whether schools should and could
offer more, or whether we should think more broadly about how we could support young
adult students in a range of different educational settings.

Others had started to disengage from school some years before, seeking to jump-start
adulthood, often because school, which is where we locate children and young people,
was not for them a site of success or affirmation.

One of the themes of the next set of chapters is how schools structure the range of
courses that students can take, and how different approaches to classes can provide
students with different learning opportunities, some more engaging than others, and
some seemingly more conducive to the development of positive learning identities. The
contents of these chapters may shed more light on how we can lessen the number of
students who leave because of “push” factors.