THE first of "several" flexible learning centres planned for the region has officially opened in Broadmeadow in a bid to keep young people engaged in education.
The St Laurence Flexible Learning Centre - a systemic school of the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle - opened on Tuesday in response to the "increasing number" of young people disengaging from schooling at an early age, Wayne Tinsey, executive director of the Edmund Rice Education Australia (EREA), said.
"In 2014, Australian data showed that about one-fifth of secondary-age students do not attend school and a further one-fifth do not feel connected to their school," Dr Tinsey said.
"It is also known that lower educational participation leads to lower income levels, higher unemployment and greater reliance on social services.
"Keeping 'at risk' young people engaged reduces their likelihood by more than 50 per cent of becoming 'not in employment, education or training' as young adults."
Dr Tinsey said the need for flexible learning options in Australia had been well documented. The programs were "individually designed" and included work on and off site. He said rather than having rules, the centres operated on the four principles of honesty, respect, participation, and "safe and legal" in an environment where staff and young people shared a "similar status" - a sense of common ground and shared responsibility.
"The emphasis is on acceptance, forgiveness and hope when, for many of the young people, their experience has been rejection, condemnation and lack of a hope-filled future," he said.
"The young people are supported by a team of teachers and youth workers.
"Families do not pay fees; the school is fully funded as a Special Assistance School by the federal and state governments."
Gerard Mowbray, acting director of the Catholic Schools Office at the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, said there was potential to develop other centres within the next 10 years, given the need for flexible learning.
"We see the Manning and Maitland as areas where, through establishing flexible learning centres, we can best support young people who, for a range of complex reasons, have not stayed in mainstream schooling," he said.