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Flexible South Melbourne secondary school opens with soaring waitlist to address rising school-refusal rates in Victoria

5 April 2023

Today, Special Assistance School Hester Hornbrook Academy officially opens its South Melbourne doors to the growing number of secondary school learners who are not thriving in a traditional mainstream education setting – highlighting the need for more places to support Victorian students.

Located at 24 Tope St, South Melbourne, the latest Hester Hornbrook campus is at the cutting edge of flexible education and now supports an additional 90 15-25-year-old students who have experienced ‘school refusal’, growing levels of anxiety and mental ill-health, family violence and homelessness, and require a different educational approach to achieve academic success.

According to a recent government submission to a Senate inquiry, school refusal rates in Victoria grew 50 percent in the three years to 2021, although research on this emerging phobia is lacking.

Since 2018, the number of students enrolled across Hester Hornbrook campuses in South Melbourne, Melbourne CBD, Sunshine, and Prahran each year has grown from 170 to 382 in 2022 – more than doubling in the last five years. 421 student enrolments are forecast across campuses in 2023.

A further 78 students are on Hester Hornbrook’s skyrocketing waitlist, which has more than doubled in the last 12 months alone, with expressions of interest coming from mainstream schools, parents, and services like Navigator coming into contact with young people.

Hester Hornbook Principal Sally Lasslett explains, “When mainstream schools are not able to provide the services, wellbeing and individualised programs some young learners need, they look to us to assist. Flexible learning environments like ours complement the mainstream school system.” 

“Right now, we can’t grow fast enough to meet demand. We need more places for students and call on the mainstream education system to work alongside us and other independent special assistance schools to support and smoothly transition young students if an alternative learning environment is what they need to thrive.”

In response to the establishment of an expert panel to advise Australian Education Ministers on improvements for students most at risk of falling behind, Sally points to the exciting opportunity for education reforms to take lessons learned delivering education differently during COVID-19 and increase access to flexible learning environments that can wrap around the wellbeing supports students need to finish school and transition with good health to further education and employment.

“Students who were formally fearful of returning to school are learning to code a game or develop their own podcast in our applied learning environments and graduating secondary school with similar levels of numeracy and literacy to those learning trigonometry and reading The Crucible in traditional school environments. They just needed a different way to learn,” she says.

Offering a trauma-informed, healing-oriented learning environment, Hester Hornbrook is an independent registered school with a focus on addressing student wellbeing first in order to ensure excellent educational outcomes, providing educators and youth workers in every class.

Hester Hornbrook has campuses in Melbourne CBD, Prahran and Sunshine and is planning for future Werribee and Donnybrook campuses.

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