Supporting school completion: The importance of engagement and effective teaching

This report was originally published 23 May 2019.

Image: Supporting school completion


When students have strong teacher-student relationships, feel challenged, value school, put effort into their learning, participate in school and display positive behaviour, they are more likely to complete Year 12 than their peers who are disengaged at school. Significantly, students from a low-socioeconomic (SES) background1 who report high levels of these types of engagement are more likely to complete school than high-SES students who report low levels of engagement.

Using data from the NSW Tell Them From Me (TTFM) secondary school student survey, this Learning Curve explores the links between students’ engagement and experience of teaching practices in the middle of high school (Year 10) and their likelihood of completing Year 12 two years later. It is accompanied by the resource: Supporting school completion: Resources for schools, teachers and parents/carers, which outlines practical strategies that may help facilitate high school completion and postschool transition. The resource includes four case studies that highlight how some low-SES schools are supporting students to identify post-school pathways and helping them achieve these pathways.

In Australia, socioeconomic status remains a key factor in school completion. By age 19, only 61% of the most disadvantaged students have completed Year 12, compared with 89% of the most advantaged students (Lamb et al. 2015).

Completing Year 12 or an equivalent qualification is a gateway to many successful post-school pathways. It is important that all young people are given the opportunity to complete Year 12, or an equivalent pathway, particularly students who are at risk of not completing school due to their socioeconomic disadvantage. To develop effective classroom and school-wide strategies that will improve completion rates for all students, we need to understand better the factors that impact upon student completion, particularly those that schools can improve and change.

Key findings2

Finding 1: Positive engagement and effective teaching increase all students’ chances of completing Year 12.

When students develop positive relationships with teachers and are supported and challenged by teachers, they are more likely to complete school. Likewise, when students put effort in at school, see value in doing homework and believe school is important and useful for future success, they are also more likely to complete Year 12.

Finding 2: Engaging disadvantaged students increases their chances of completing school.

When students from low-SES backgrounds report high levels of engagement and effective teaching practice in the middle of high school they are more likely to complete school than students from high-SES backgrounds who are not engaged in school.

Finding 3: Students from low-SES backgrounds are more likely to be disengaged in key predictors of school completion than students from high-SES backgrounds.

In NSW, around half of all high-SES students in Year 10 report positive teacher relationships, positive attendance and value the outcomes of school, whereas only a quarter of low-SES students report a similar level of engagement. At the other extreme, 10% of low-SES Year 10 students have negative engagement in all three measures, compared with 3% of high-SES students.

What schools can do to improve completion rates for all students

This study confirms that positive engagement in school increases all students’ chances of completing Year 12. Significantly, this study highlights the positive impact engagement has on the completion rates of students from low-SES backgrounds.

Student engagement and school completion can be influenced and strengthened by the things that schools do. A companion piece to this Learning Curve, Supporting school completion: Resources for schools, teachers and parents/carers, highlights practical strategies that schools can use, and are using, to improve school completion rates. This accompanying resource also describes the strategies employed by four low-SES high schools in NSW – Sir Joseph Banks High School, Birrong Girls High School, Canowindra High School and Temora High School all of which are experiencing positive results in student engagement, school completion and post-school transition.

Teaching and school-wide strategies highlighted in this companion piece include:

  • promoting positive teacher-student relationships, particularly in the years prior to students finishing high school
  • setting high expectations for all students that foster high aspirations and encourage students to work towards these aspirations
  • setting students tasks that are intellectually challenging and suited to their particular learning needs
  • encouraging students to have high expectations of themselves and stay motivated in their learning
  • promoting positive participation in school, and
  • supporting students in their decision-making during the post-school transition.

Using these strategies may improve the completion rates of all students, particularly those from low-SES backgrounds and help close the gap between low- and high-SES students’ rates of school completion.

1 Students are classified as low- or high-SES (bottom or top quarter of the state) based on their self-report in TTFM of family structure, parental education and home possessions.

2 Findings reported in this Learning Curve for students with ‘high’ versus ‘low’ engagement refer to students with an engagement score of 7.5 out of 10 (high engagement) compared to students with a score of 2.5 out of 10 (low engagement), after taking into account students’ socioeconomic status, prior achievement and plans to complete Year 12.


  • Research report
  • Student engagement and wellbeing
  • Tell Them From Me

Business Unit:

  • Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation
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