Department of Family and Community Services

Focus Topic: Education and employment experiences of early school leavers

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What happens to young women who leave school early? Although much is written about the challenges they face in employment and lifetime earnings, less is known about the extent to which they overcome their initial ‘qualifications gap’ in later life. In this focus topic we compare young women who left school early during the 1990s with those who completed Year 12 in the same period, looking at whether they returned to education and how this affected them.

Today the percentage of young people completing Year 12 has increased compared to 15 years ago. Raising the school leaving age, offering a wider range of vocational subjects at school and the changing labour market have all contributed to this trend. While 78 percent of Australian women aged 20 to 24 years had completed Year 12 or equivalent in 2001, 85 percent had in 2011.1

Nevertheless, tracking the employment and educational outcomes for an earlier generation provides useful insights into the challenges and opportunities available to a group that commence their adult life with qualification deficits. In this focus topic we track young women using the HILDA longitudinal survey.2 We look at school leavers first in 2001, when they were aged between 22 and 29, and then again 10 years later.3 First, contextual information about the two groups is provided.

Socio-economic background of girls completing and not completing school

An examination of the social background of girls leaving school early indicates they come disproportionately from disadvantaged circumstances.

The early school leavers were overwhelmingly found living in areas defined as being in the lowest deciles of socio-economic disadvantage, with some 48 percent found in the bottom three deciles.4 Among those who completed high school the proportion who were living in these three areas was just 29 per cent. By contrast, the school completers were found clustered in the most advantaged areas, with 37 percent in the top three deciles. Among the early school leavers, only 13 percent lived in these areas (see Figure 3.3).

What other background differences existed in 2001?


The kind of school attended was notable: 84 percent of early school leavers had been to government schools, compared with 66 percent among those who had completed high school.


Parents’ occupations also correlated with high school completion. Early school leavers were more likely to have fathers who worked at machinery and plant operators, or as labourers (35 percent). The proportion who had worked as professionals was just 10 percent. By contrast, women who had completed high school were much more likely to have had fathers who were professionals (22 percent) and much less likely to have been machinery and plant operators, or labourers (13 percent). The same patterns were evident in the occupation of the mothers.

Cultural differences also appear to differ systematically between the two groups of women. Only 17 percent of the early school leavers had been born overseas whereas some 27 percent of the women who completed high school had been. The contrast between the two groups was also stark when it came to their parents’ birthplaces. Among the early school leavers, for example, some 36 percent had fathers born overseas, but among the school completers the proportion was higher, at 42 percent. The same pattern was evident with the mothers.

Early school leavers who were in their twenties in 2001

Turning to the experiences of the young women in education and the labour market, the first point of interest is the educational outcomes which had already occurred by 2001. For some of the women in the sample, leaving school may have taken place over 10 years earlier.

As one might expect, nearly half of the women who had completed high school had gone on to achieve a university education, while another 11 percent had acquired diplomas or advanced diplomas.

Among the early school leavers, the situation was very different: just 1 percent had achieved a university education and another 7 percent had acquired diplomas. They had, however, taken up vocational courses in considerable numbers, with 20 percent holding certificate level qualifications.

Overall, some 72 percent of the early school leavers had acquired no further qualifications, compared with just 35 percent of those who completed high school. See Table 3.2.

Young women’s experiences 2001-11

So what happened in the next 10 years? How had things changed by 2011 when the women were in their thirties?

The changes appear modest. For those who completed high school, another 8 percent had acquired university qualifications and a further 5 percent had acquired vocational certificates. The overall proportion without any post-school qualifications had fallen considerably, from 35 to 23 percent.

For early school leavers the progress, in relative terms, was also tangible. The proportion with university qualifications tripled, from 1 percent to 3 percent, while the proportion with vocational certificates increased considerably, from 20 percent to 34 percent. Consequently, the improvement in lowering the proportion without post-school qualifications was also considerable: a drop from 72 percent down to 54 percent – leaving the qualification gap between school completers and non-completers as roughly 30 percentage points (see Table 3.3).

In other words, many women took up opportunities for ‘second chance’ education through their twenties and thirties, with the vocational education and training system providing an important vehicle for this choice.

Employment outcomes: then and now

Education has major implications for the employment prospects of individuals. What was the employment situation among these early school leavers in 2001 and how did it change by 2011?

In 2001, early school leavers were just as likely to be working part-time as those who completed high school (22 percent and 20 percent respectively), but they were only half as likely to be working full-time (28 percent to 58 percent). Instead, they were more likely to be unemployed (8 percent compared with 2 per cent) and much more likely to have withdrawn from the labour market (44 percent compared with 20 percent).

By 2011, the situation was quite different. Those who had completed high school were more likely to be working part-time rather than full-time, no doubt because of increased parenting activities.

The most interesting comparison, however, is between those early school leavers who didn’t gain any further education and those who did undertake further education. The latter had much higher levels of full-time labour force participation. Some 39 percent of them were working full-time, a figure not far below the 44 percent of high school completers, and twice as large as the 19 percent of early school leavers who did not gain further education.


This insight into the path taken by early school leavers indicates that they find it harder to make the transition to either full-time work or full-time education, and generally to establish secure futures. However, it also indicates the potential benefits associated with re-entering education later in life – a path that over one-third of the women took. Further research would be needed to learn more about those who do pursue so-called ‘second chance education’, to identify, for example, their socio-economic background or other ways they may differ from the young women who do not.

In NSW, 12 percent of girls and 15 percent of boys aged 15 to 19 years were not actively engaged in either work or education in 2011. These young people, disproportionately from low socio-economic and rural backgrounds, clearly constitute an at-risk social group. The analysis above shows the importance of remediating opportunities being kept open for them in their later lives.

1 Foundation for Young Australians (2012) How Young People are Faring 2012 p.56. Available at The figure is for Australia as a whole.

2 This report uses unit record data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey. The HILDA Project was initiated and is funded by the Australian Government Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA) and is managed by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research (Melbourne Institute). The findings and views reported in this paper, however, are those of the author and should not be attributed to either FaHCSIA or the Melbourne Institute. All HILDA data in this report has been analysed for Women NSW by Dr Ian Watson.

3 The choice of population reflects women in their twenties who will have (largely) finished their tertiary studies following their school years.

4 The analysis uses the ABS SEIFA Index to examine socio-economic status.

Figure 3.3 Socio-economic area of residence in 2011

Fig 3.3

Population: All NSW women in the HILDA survey aged 22 to 29 (inclusive) in 2011. Data is weighted.
Source: HILDA Release 11.0.

Table 3.2 Educational outcomes in their twenties, NSW women by Year 12 completion

Highest level of education achieved  Whether completed Year 12 or not by 2001 
Women who were early school leavers %  Women who completed Year 12 % 
University  1 45
Diploma/Advanced Diploma  7 11
Certificate  20 10
Year 12  1 35
Below Year 12  72  
Total  (N=332) 100*  (N=627) 100 

Population: All NSW women in the HILDA survey aged 22 to 29 (inclusive) in 2011. Data is weighted. *Percentages do not total 100 due to rounding.

Source: HILDA Release 11.0.

Table 3.3 Educational outcomes in their thirties, NSW women by Year 12 completion

Highest level of education achieved by 2011 

Whether completed Year 12 or not 

Women who were early school leavers % 

Women who completed high school % 

University  3 53
Diploma/Advanced Diploma  8 10
Certificate  34 15
Year 12  1 23
Below Year 12  54
Total  (N=200) 100  (N=418) 100* 

Population: All NSW women in the HILDA survey aged 22 to 29 (inclusive) in 2011. Data is weighted. *Percentages do not total 100 due to rounding.

Source: HILDA Release 11.0.

Table 3.4 Employment outcomes, 2001 and 2011, by Year 12 completion


Women who left school early 

Women who completed high school 

Total 2001 %  With no further education 2011 %  With further education 2011 %  2001% 2011%
Employed full-time  28 19 39 58 44
Employed part-time  22 33 32 20 35
Unemployed, looking for full-time work  5 1 3 1 1
Unemployed, looking for part-time work  3 2 2 1 1
Not in the labour force, marginally attached  22 16 4 8 4
Not in the labour force, not marginally attached  20 29 21 12 15
Total  (N=332) 100  (N=104) 100  (N=96) 100  (N=627) 100  (N=418) 100 
Population: All NSW women in the HILDA survey aged 22 to 29 (inclusive) in 2011. Data is weighted.
Source: HILDA Release 11.0.