First published with The Courier –

There are 1100 students in the Central Highlands region who are not regularly attending school.

It’s a shocking statistic that hits at the emotional core of those working deep in the issue of youth disengagement, including Berry Street School assistant principal Damian McKee.

It’s a figure he attributes to a lack of flexible learning options in Ballarat.

So many students with a history of trauma are unable to cope with the demands of a mainstream classroom.

“I might cop a bit of flak for saying it, but it is pretty obvious we are setting up systems in our mainstream educational processes where they just can’t succeed,” Mr McKee said.

Child and family service organisation Berry Street opened a school campus in Ballarat in February 2017.

The Berry Street education model focusses on addressing the specific needs of disengaged young people through a trauma informed process.

CALM: Alex, Samantha Walkerden and Angel with assistance dog Phoebe. Picture: Kate Healy

The school opened in Sebastopol with 20 students and has extended enrollments to 32 this year.

“We are a select entry school. Some people laugh when I tell them that. We take the sort of kids who have struggled with the largeness of a mainstream school. They might be suffering anxiety or depression as a response to trauma in their lives, like family violence, neglect or exposure to drug and alcohol problems in the family,” Mr McKee said.

“When you are trying to deal with some of those issues going on in your life you don’t have the headspace for a mainstream classroom with eight to 12 different subjects, different teachers and mostly memory based learning.

“A lot of schools around Ballarat are doing some great work in raising the educational outcomes of their school and improving its profile. But what about those kids who can’t jump this high? Some of these kids can’t. It is not as if they don’t want to, it is they can’t engage. This is the 1100 kids.

“The other big problem is a lot of teachers in mainstream schools are crying out for training to deal with the issues arising in classrooms. Teachers are saying they don’t have the skills to deal with their trauma. That’s why we become a central focus for a lot of schools and families who are asking for help.”

READ: 14-year-old Lachlan and 14-year-old Rachael in the new library at Berry Street School. Picture: Lachlan Bence

Development at Berry Street is focussed on addressing each student’s primary issues, forming relationships, and building trust in an effort to rebuild their confidence to learn.

A high staff to student ratio of about three students to one teacher means the school can often provide one on one support.

“If a student is faced with a problem in a classroom, their frustrations increase and you don’t have an understanding of what caused that problem to arise, you are not going to get anywhere,” Mr McKee said.

“It is about being ale to sit down with the student and ask what caused their problem. They might say they can’t stand noise in the classroom. We might bring in headphones so we can block out some of the noise. Their story is everything.”


Students are continuing to develop an ability to learn, each at their own pace. Some have transitioned back into a mainstream school environment, but for others, what may seem a simple action of building trust and positive relationship can be a lengthy and difficult process.

“One girl had been disengaged for a long period of time. She had a really terrible history of family violence and had entered into taking drugs and alcohol. She came to me mid last year saying ‘this is my final chance. I want to come here.’

“She had significant lagging skills – she couldn’t sit down and converse, couldn’t sit still and was hyper-vigilant. There were a lot of issues with building relationships and trust. She has a lot of blow ups, and continues to have a lot of blow ups, but she will now actually sit in a class because she trusts everybody else. She knows the other kids and she understands our role and that we do have unconditional positive regard for her. That takes away a lot of the stress. But she has missed so much school she is probably operating off middle primary school level and she should be in year nine. She has got a long way to go but we are forming the foundation to rebuild her literacy and numeracy skills.”

It is not as if they don’t want to, it is they can’t engage.

The number of enrollments are capped at the Berry Street School due to limited space, resources and a commitment to providing individual support.

But staff say the ideal outcome is to support students back into mainstream schooling.

“The conversation I had with a principal recently was to say that is not just about us doing our bit, it us about them doing their bit too,” Mr McKee said.

“They have got to lower the bar a bit for those young people to be able to re-engage. You can’t just say these are our expectations. This problem is not going to go away.”

The state government supported Flexible Learning Intervention Pathway (FLIP program) is available to students who are disengaged from school in the Ballarat region.

The online learning program connects students with a mentor, aiming to provide a range of pathways for return to education.

Ballarat police youth resource officer Des Hudson said school was one of the most significant protective factors in a young person’s life.

“When they are engaged in education it is often a very safe place for them to be. For young people that begin to disengage, those protective factors are no longer there, and there is greater opportunity for them to engage in risk taking behaviour,” Hudson said.

“We need to have options that can attract the interests of all kids, knowing the longer we have them engaged in those structures of school and education, hopefully the more connected they are going to be to community long term.”