New Flexible Learning Centre the first of many in the Hunter

The official opening and blessing of the St Laurence Flexible Learning Centre in Broadmeadow in May was a major milestone in the history of Catholic education in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

The centre was created in partnership with Edmund Rice Education Australia (EREA) and is the first of several the Diocese is planning to establish in the Hunter-Manning region. Initial enrolment was 38 and the aim is to gradually increase to about 50 young people. Nine students graduated in 2019, with 100% pass rate.

Flexible learning centre 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. 

“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,” said Maitland-Newcastle Diocese acting director of schools, Gerard Mowbray. “There is the potential to develop other centres within the next 10 years given the need for flexible learning.”

That need for flexible learning options in Australia has been well documented, said EREA executive director Wayne Tinsey.  

“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 said.

“In 2014, Australian data showed that about one-fifth of secondary-age students did not attend school and a further one-fifth did 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 about $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 at Broadmeadow is the 20th such centre in Australia.  

 “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,” said Dr Tinsey.

As part of his blessing, Bishop Bill Wright 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.”

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