The centre is the first of its kind to be opened in the Diocese and it is the first of several that the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle is planning to establish in the Hunter-Manning region.
Established in partnership with the Edmund Rice Education Australia (EREA), the centre is only the third in NSW operated by EREA – the others being in Wollongong and St Marys.
The new centre, a systemic school of the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, is being operated by Edmund Rice Education Australia through Youth+.
The centre currently has an enrolment of 30 and the aim is to gradually increase to about 50 young people.
“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,” says Gerard Mowbray, Acting Director of the Catholic Schools Office at the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.
“There is the potential to develop other centres within the next 10 years given the need for flexible learning.”
The need for flexible learning options in Australia has been well documented according to Wayne Tinsey, Executive Director of the EREA.
“The Brotherhood of St Laurence says Australia faces a pressing need for quality flexible-learning programs to cater for the increasing number of young people who are disengaging from schooling at an early age,” Dr Tinsey says.
“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.
“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’ (NEET) as young adults.
“There have also been a number of studies looking at the economic and social benefits. A 2016 Australian Research Council study, by James Cook University, the Victoria Institute of Victoria University and EREA Youth+ entitled Gauging the Value of Flexible Learning Options for Young People found that every dollar spent on flexible learning options generates approximately $17 in socio-economic returns.”
EREA, through Youth+, has responded to a number of invitations from churches and communities to open flexible learning centres. The St Laurence O’Toole Centre is the 20th such centre in Australia – and there are now flexible learning centres in all states and territories except the ACT.
In general, flexible learning centres programs are individually designed and include on-site and off-site work. Rather than having rules, the centres operate with four principles – honesty, respect, participation, and safe and legal – in an environment where staff and young people have 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,” says Dr Tinsey.
“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,” he says.
Bishop Bill Wright, as part of his blessing of the centre, said:
“May these buildings be a place of learning, community and hope for the young people of our Diocese as they seek to live life to its fullest through an education inspired by the charism of Blessed Edmund Rice.
“May the young people and staff who enter this community feel welcomed, accepted and loved … May they see that Jesus is at the heart of everything and that the call of the Gospel is to enrich our relationship with Him.”