'I deserve another chance.' The student no school wants

VCE students pushed out

Concerns that schools are pushing non-academic students out of VCE to boost their rankings.

She is the student no school wants to enrol.

She is the student no school wants to enrol.

Brittany was forced to leave school in year 7 after she was caught with a knife. She has since been turned away from 20 state schools.

The 16-year-old worries she is falling behind and her chances for a better future are slipping away.

Brittany Murray, a student at the Flexible Learning School in North Melbourne.
Brittany Murray, a student at the Flexible Learning School in North Melbourne.  Photo: Eddie Jim

"That was four years ago," she says. "I deserve another chance."

Her case highlights how young people who play up are being shut out of Victoria's mainstream education system.

Students who have dropped out of school, or who have been expelled, are waiting months or even years before they can re-enrol. Some are locked out forever. 

Fairfax Media is investigating how schools are excluding underperforming or challenging students in an effort to protect their reputation in an increasingly competitive market.

Brittany was 12-years-old when she made a mistake that cost her access to mainstream schools.

It began with teasing in grade six. Students spread rumours that her mother was a junkie. They made fun of her body. This went on for more than a year. By the time she was in secondary school, she was responding with her fists.

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"I would get bullied, then I became the bully."

Brittany takes a deep breath as she recounts her last day at Rosehill Secondary College.

The night before, she was warned to expect trouble at school. The older brother of a classmate was planning on beating her up. Brittany hid a knife in the sleeve of her school jumper but teachers were tipped off and confiscated the weapon.

The school moved quickly to expel her, but her sister moved quicker, pulling Brittany out.

She enrolled at St Joseph's Flexible Learning Centre, an alternative Catholic school, which is designed to take on disengaged students with complex social and behavioural problems. 

Brittany's teachers insist she has turned a corner and are now advocating for her re-entry into mainstream schools.

She is now improving her literacy and numeracy skills and learning how to regulate her emotions. When a situation bothers her, she talks to a teacher or walks away.

But schools tell Brittany they are full, or that she is not in their zone. Others are more direct – they say they don't want her because of her violent history. She has even been turned away from her local school in Melbourne's west, which by law must accept her.

Experts say that state schools receive inadequate funding – sometimes none – to re-enrol challenging students, who often need extra academic and behavioural support.

Former Premier Steve Bracks flagged the issue in his school funding review, saying schools faced a "funding disincentive" when re-enrolling disengaged students.

He recommended a new fund to keep disengaged students at school and extending late enrolment funding for all early school leavers who are reintegrated into school.

Emma King, chief executive of the Victorian Council of Social Service, has heard of schools refusing to engage with "difficult" students after enrolment census dates, when funding calculations are made.

"Kids shouldn't be punished or excluded because they might need a little extra help or might drag down a test average," she says.​

The acting principal of St Joseph's North Melbourne campus, Bethany Johnson, says Brittany's experience is not unique.

Long delays are common. "It can be deflating to wait so long … the students just give up."

The Education Department says it works "closely with schools and families to ensure enrolment guidelines are applied properly, fairly and transparently".

Last year, the Andrews government launched its "Navigator" program, which has already helped more than 159 disengaged Victorians re-engage with school.

It has also invested $40 million in two programs for early school leavers who enrol in VCAL at training organisations or training at TAFE and Learn Local organisations.

Families can appeal a school's enrolment decision, a department spokesman said.

However, the Victorian Ombudsman is investigating complaints that families are struggling to appeal expulsions and find alternative enrolments for their children. The watchdog is also investigating a 27 per cent spike in expulsions at state schools, and whether vulnerable students are over-represented.

Australian Catholic University senior lecturer Jonathon Sargeant said schools are pressured to expel misbehaving students to protect their brand.

"There is ... pressure on schools to show performance in terms of academic results," he said.

"If the students don't fit that profile, there's a view that can impact the reputation of the school. It's a careful balancing act between supporting an individual student and supporting the needs of the wider school community."

Brittany's former principal Peter Rouse was forced to make a tough decision when he caught her with the knife. He knew she was having a tough time at home, but bringing the weapon to school put students and staff at risk.   

Brittany wrote a letter begging Mr Rouse to re-enrol her. When she received no reply, she showed up at school and vandalised cars.

The episode spun out of control and Brittany punched Mr Rouse in the chest.

The school was placed in lockdown.

Mr Rouse says his school does its best to support all students, but mainstream schools are generally not equipped to support students like Brittany, who receive better support in flexible or alternative schools.

"They need a lot more individual attention than big schools like ours can give them."

Brittany disagrees. This year, she will continue trying to re-enrol in mainstream schools.  

"I just want to pass year 12 and get the education that I've missed out on," she says. "I want to try to get somewhere in life."