Smyth, John and Fasoli, Lyn (2007) Climbing over the rocks in the road to student engagement and learning in a challenging Australian high school. Educational Research, 49 (3). pp. 273-295. ISSN 0013-1881

Background There is increasing evidence that schools internationally are not meeting the needs of increasing numbers of young people, especially those at the secondary level, and whose backgrounds have placed them at disadvantage. The evidence is that significant numbers of young people are becoming disconnected from school. While the official term for this is ‘disengagement’, it seems that official educational policy responses to these tendencies, far from ‘fixing’ the problem, seem to be exacerbating it. Current policy preoccupations that emphasize accountability, greater parental choice of schools and a more prescriptive curriculum can present difficulties for young people, particularly those from challenging backgrounds. There may be a mismatch between formal educational policy, and the lived experiences at the level of the school and classroom for the most vulnerable young people.

Purpose This paper reports on a single instance of a high school that embarked upon a process of reinventing itself in respect of the importance of relationships and ‘relational power’ for students over their learning. The paper examines what the teachers and students had to say about the efficacy of this school-based reform.

Sample The case-study school was located in an area of extreme social disadvantage in which young people had diminished educational expectations. The research involved observations and interviews with a small sample of stakeholders and focus groups with students (13–16-year-olds).

Design and method The study was an ethnographic case study of a single secondary school conducted over a five-week continuous period. It used ‘embedded interviews’ involving observation of in-class teaching prior to extensive 1-hour interviews with teachers and students' focus groups. All interviews were recorded. Detailed field notes were kept of classroom observations and other activities, including school assemblies, staff meetings and reflections on informal conversations held during teaching breaks in the staffroom.

Results and conclusions Positive outcomes emerged from a context where fair boundaries were established and in which students could see school as a place where they could experience fun in their learning. The process was by no means complete, but the school felt that it had found a more efficacious way to move forward and the students made this clear in their statements about what the school was attempting to do with them. Key to these positive outcomes was a commitment to placing relationships between students, teachers and parents at the centre of everything the school did.

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