In 2008, the publication of the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians was a unique event in that its pronouncements on schooling were agreed upon by all Education Ministers. In a context where individual states have long struggled to agree on even minute aspects of primary and secondary education, achieving a coherent voice required the distillation of education to its bedrock principles. In this light, the recognition that the middle years, and particularly the stage now broadly referred to as Year 9, are described as ‘a time when students are at the greatest risk of disengagement from learning’  was almost simultaneously oxymoronically simple and complex.
Speak to any collection of parents of recent high school graduates and the majority will tell you of the difficulties of the Year 9 experience. However, when asked to articulate the underlying causes of the issue, many will simply shrug their shoulders or point to puberty. What the Declaration instead recognised was that fourteen to sixteen year old students in their third year of high school have faced the transition to multi-disciplinary learning, the challenges of formalised examinations and the inherent intellectual self-doubt that pertains to being almost invariably part of a much larger group and that ‘student motivation and engagement in these years is critical’. The core question that may be surreptitiously clawing at the psyche of a Year 9 student somewhere betwixt the ego and the id is: ‘Why should I bother?’
The task, therefore, of the Year 9 educator is to find ways to answer this question or undermine this internal saboteur. To do so, it is vital to have a deep, holistic knowledge of each student. ‘Offering blanket out of class assistance appears to be unlikely to draw those who most need [help]’, as students at this stage often feel they are simply beyond help; therefore, the Year 9 teacher must know which students to approach individually. Working within a designated campus where teachers exist solely with the year level, the Year 9 experience at Westbourne’s Geoffrey Ryan Centre facilitates a profound understanding of students.
Any family who has had a son or daughter pass through the Year 9 program at Westbourne possesses intimate knowledge of the Collaborative Project, the element which is the foundation of the success of the Centre. With six periods a fortnight, mentor time, city excursions, entire timetabled weeks dedicated wholly to Project, it is the lynchpin of the entire year and therefore requires clear rationale to justify such dedication of time and resources. Current research shows that ‘it is not enough for ‘positive’ or ‘caring’ relationships to exist’ for Year 9 students, but that they must have relationships that ‘expand possibilities for … students [where] teachers connect their students with people, places, and ideas that broaden their worlds’.
The Year 9 program does not, however, exist in a vacuum. Connection to the rest of the senior school remains both visible for the students and in a more subtle manner through ongoing dialogue with pastoral and curricular leaders from Years 7 to 12. Such connection reflects our awareness that Year 9 must exist within the sequence of our students’ development. While some may consider graduation as a concern of Year 11 and 12 students, the likelihood of successful completion of secondary schooling first becomes most easily identifiable at Year 9 and, while changing ‘grades have been traditionally identified of the strongest predictor’ of student graduation, new research dictates that measuring student ‘motivation for educational attainment [at Year 9] led to a similar effect size’. Returning, as is so often the case, to the rationale for the standalone campus, the simple ability to interact daily with our Year 9 students provides the opportunity to examine how they feel about their learning and identify when and how we can best support each induvial in the most appropriate way.
Educational systems worldwide have taken a vast range of often dichotomous approaches to managing the ‘Year 9 problem’, including the ‘middle school’ concept popular in the Americas, the use of national examinations in Britain and Ireland and the opening of vocational pathways. Year 9 may always be a challenging time for students; however, at Westbourne, we strive to continue to refine our Year 9 experience to ensure the key elements of motivation and engagement are evident in all we do.
Director of the Year 9 Program
 Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (Australia). (2008). Melbourne declaration on educational goals for young Australians. Melbourne: Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs.
 Linda Stade and Simone Sawiris, ‘Encouraging Motivation, Perseverance and Resilience in Year 9 Science Students’, Independence, 44:1, pp.26–29.
 Peter C Scales, Kent Pekel, Jenna Sethi, Rachel Chamberlain and Martin Van Boekel, Martin, ‘Academic Year Changes in Student-Teacher Developmental Relationships and Their Linkage to Middle and High School Students’ Motivation: A Mixed Methods Study’, The Journal of Early Adolescence, 40:4, 2002, pp. 499–536.
 Stephen G West, Kim N Jan, Joe Han and Shelby S Bauer, ‘Motivation for Educational Attainment in Grade 9 Predicts High School Completion’, Educational Measurement, Issues and Practice, 38:2, pp. 27–40.