The NETschool is located in Bendigo, a major regional centre in Victoria, 150 kms north west of Melbourne. Despite areas of economic growth, the region records lower than state average employment and income levels, and young people aged 15-19 show higher than state average rates of school disengagement. The NETschool was founded in 2005, as part of Bendigo Senior Secondary College, in response to the identification of up to 700 young people aged 16-20 years old receiving Job Seeker benefits. At present 100 learners are enrolled in the school, in mentor groups of 10, to undertake VCE, VCAL and VET courses. In preparation for these courses learners undertake research based courses. A number of teachers from Bendigo Senior Secondary College provide subject specific instruction at the NETschool, and learners may attend some College classes.
In order to re-engage young people in work or study, the NETschool offers a highly innovative environment designed to provide positive learning experiences for ‘at risk’ students. The wide-ranging innovations at the Netschool include a shopfront setting, a workplace interior layout, and the use of a respectful and non-judgmental vocabulary to describe young people and their learning achievements. The programs are also innovative in nature: individual plans are drawn up to accommodate each learner, and include the option of study in a home or centre-based setting.
The NETschool has a high rate of measurable success, with 89.13% of learners in 2009 either employed or continuing in education. Of the remainder, 8.78% had withdrawn for reasons of relocation or mental health issues, but only 1.09% had disengaged from the program (NETschool 2010). The interviews for this study confirmed the learners’ satisfaction with the NETschool.
The success of the NETschool has been attributed to the role of the mentors, to the small group approach, to the control learners have over their learning, and to the positive learner culture at the school (Cox 2010). The role of the mentors is a central one, as they support the learners in both practical and academic ways, acting as responsible and trusted role models for their mentees. The flexible and individual nature of the program has also been cited as a feature of the NETschool’s success. According to Cox (2010 p.17) the program is ‘wrapped around the learner’, accommodating individual choices and interests at many levels of its operation. This reflection of learners’ needs and interests values their experiences and places them at the centre of the educational enterprise.
Since each learner requires a new and different approach, the demands on the mentors and teachers are considerable. Their support system offered is a co-operative and layered one: staff use both formal and informal means to assist one another, and are supported in turn by the Team Facilitator, their professional development, and by professional agencies. This multi-level system is both consultative and inclusive.
A notable indicator of the NETschool’s success is that some of its innovative practices have been taken up by mainstream schools. At Bendigo Senior Secondary College, for instance, all students now have individual learning plans based around their goals, and self-paced learning programs, derived from Netschool models, have been implemented. These changes demonstrate that programs for marginalized learners have significant insights to offer mainstream educational practice.
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