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Their voice: Student perceptions of the sources of alienation in secondary school

Karin Oerlemans and Heather Jenkins


Adolescent alienation from society is a serious issue confronting many industrialised nations. It is a particularly disturbing relationship between the adolescent and their family, society, school, peers or self (Calabrese & Cochran, 1990). To be alienated is to lack a sense of belonging, to feel cut off from family, friends or school (Bronfenbrenner, 1986). It is seen as a negative aspect of young people's lives, associated with behaviours such as violence, school failure, drug abuse, sexual promiscuity and involvement in other forms of deviant behaviour (Newmann, Rutter & Smith, 1989; Mau, 1992; Zubrick, et al, 1997).

Whilst the alienation of adolescents affects them in their home and social life, it is the effect on their education that is the particular concern of this study.

Mau (1992) examined the validity of the multidimensional concept of alienation in the school context, and focused on the four dimensions of powerlessness, social estrangement, meaninglessness and normlessness. Powerlessness refers to the student's feeling of lack of control over their lives. Social estrangement, combining Seeman's (1975,1979) constructs of self-estrangement and isolation, refers to the student's feelings of isolation, which can be a physical isolation or a mental or emotional withdrawing of themselves from their situation (Carlson, 1995). Meaninglessness refers to a student's feeling of irrelevance to what is happening to them right now. With alienated students the only relevant time is the one that is happening 'right now', "the past is done and the future is mostly unimaginable" (Lindley, 1990, p. 27). Normlessness refers to a student's rejection of society's rules and norms.

Within the school context adolescent alienation is often exhibited in behaviours such as self-isolation, failure, violence, absenteeism, truancy, and dropping out (Mau, 1992; Zubrick, 1997).

In Western Australia it is the law that students attend school to the end of year ten. Yet in the recent WA Child Health Survey of schools 3 per cent of students were absent for at least one day per week, or 20 per cent of their schooling. A further 11 per cent missed at least half a day per week. Of the total number of absences over 14 per cent were unexplained, that is without a medical certificate or note (Zubrick, et al., 1997). When students were asked how they felt about school, one in five responded that they disliked or "hated" school. The study involved no correlation between those students who hated school and those who did not attend.

West Australian adolescents also have discipline problems at school. The WA Education Department's expulsion and suspension statistics show that about 5 per cent of students were suspended from school in 18 months (West Australian, 1997). Suspensions were given because of behaviours such as verbal abuse, damage to property, violation of school rules, and for more serious offenses such as selling drugs and physical assault. Again no correlation has been done between those who have been suspended, those who do not attend and those who are alienated from school.

However, an earlier study in American schools, found there was a significant correlation between those adolescents who had problems with school, and those who truanted and eventually dropped out (Whelage & Rutter, 1986), that when controlling for academic function, that is ability, expectation and outcomes, truancy emerged as the most significant predictor of an adolescent dropping out of school. Other significant predictors proved to be those adolescents who had had discipline problems, and, less significantly, those who were frequently late and those who worked outside of school at a job. These studies indicate the significance of truancy and discipline problems as important indicators of adolescent alienation and form part of the conceptual framework for this study.

The purpose of the study

The purpose of this study was to further the understanding of adolescent alienation, in a West Australian context, by asking adolescents, who were persistently absent, what their perceptions were of the sources of alienation in school. The study examined the reasons given by students, attending a suburban state high school, for their absenteeism, to discover what features of school and its processes they found alienating, and to document how they thought school may better serve them and meet their perceived learning needs.

The principal at this school had expressed concern about the number of students who were absent and the number of times these students were absent. Absenteeism was considered to be the most important factor influencing student learning outcomes. It was thought that these students did not value their education highly and that therefore they were not coming to school.

This paper discusses the outcomes of the study in relation to Mau's (1992) four dimensions of alienation and passes on some of the student's recommendations for a better school.


This is a qualitative case study, using an interpretive approach. It is the study of a single agency (Stake, 1994), a local suburban state high school, examining how alienated adolescents in this bounded system view their world of school and how that affects their behaviour and self reported attitude to school (Schwandt, 1994). Adolescents who are alienated from school may be identified as persistent absentees, truants, frequently late or classified in terms of other forms of disruptive behaviour. The thirteen students who took part in this study were chosen on the basis of their frequent absenteeism using the schools absentee records and in consultation with the deputy principal.

In order to get the adolescents' independent views the interviews were conducted on a one-to-one basis. Interviews were taped with the adolescent's permission, and this allowed for the collection of their stories on the effect of the school processes and environment on themselves and others from their point of view. The interviews allowed adolescents to express their feelings, attitudes, and perceptions on the topic. The interviews were semi-structured, all adolescents were given the same set of initial questions, but there was also opportunity for clarification or elaboration, or the following up of any unanticipated comments.

Sources of alienation for adolescents may also occur within their family and home environment which impacts their schooling. Although issues external to the school environment did arise within the course of the interviews, these were not followed up, as they were considered beyond the scope of the proposed research topic, and adolescents during the interview were directed away from any responses in this area and towards the issue of their attitudes to school and the causes for their absenteeism that are school r elated.


Social estrangement

The students who took part in the study expressed many feelings indicating some level of social estrangement. Most of the students were not involved with any of the school activities. High school was not seen as a place to make friends, although most students felt they had friends at school. School was also not seen as a place where you could talk to anyone if you had problems. Most of the students kept their troubles to themselves.

The students in this study also perceived the school to be an unfriendly and hostile environment. There was the perception that there was a lot of fighting at the school, intolerance, and that there was one group of students in particular, who were classified as trouble makers, they are really tough you know, that were responsible for this.

The students commented on some of the other negative attitudes that they felt prevailed at the school such as teasing and gossiping. Yet the students had the perception that they could not approach the teachers with their problems, that they would be ignored, or told to ignore it. The students felt that many of the teachers had little control over the students and needed to learn how to handle difficult students better. Some of the teachers were seen as sarcastic, grumpy, pushy or had lost interest in their work.

These students felt they did not belong to the school. The school was not seen as a place they wished to attend. Many preferred to stay home, go to the beach, or be with their friends out of school. These students expressed many feelings that indicated some level of social estrangement from their schooling. Those who were identified as being trouble makers, although not interviewed, are also expressing some level of social estrangement, as they used their disruptive behaviour to express their feelings about not belonging, or not being able to identify with the school.


Meaninglessness, a second dimension of student alienation, occurs when students question the relevance of the subjects and subject content in connection with their future jobs. Most of the students who took part in this study felt that school would help them get a job, but questioned the relevance of some of the subjects which they were doing, especially some of the compulsory subjects, that is English, Science, Maths and Social Studies. One perception was that teachers were teaching what they wanted, they reckon what they are teaching us will help us in our future, sort of it will, but it all depends what sort of job you're after. All they really teach us is what they want.

One impression many of the students gave was that while schooling would help them prepare for work, it wouldn't be this year. The students expressed a lack of immediacy, they did not feel that school was meeting their needs right now, and they seem unable to connect what is happening to them right now with their future. Students indicated that this year was a waste of time, but next year would be more helpful, the courses available had more relevance, and they would, as one student expressed it, learn things.


Students feel powerless when they feel they have no control over what is happening to them, are unable to make choices, and feel that school ignores their interests in favor of the school's rules and policies. Some of the students who took part in this study, felt they were able to have some input into the school; specific areas mentioned were the areas of fund raising and helping with sports. However, many felt they had little control over their choice of subject or what happened in class. Some students expressed discouragement and one student declared that they sometimes felt stressed and like everything's on my back.

Students also expressed concern about the size of the school, how the school ignored their interests and that the school's structures and timetabling policies prevented them from participating in subjects they enjoyed further, I'd like to do more (art and design), but it doesn't fit with the timetable. Students expressions of powerlessness revolved around their inability to make a difference and their perceptions that the power is held by the teachers and the school administration.


Finally, a fourth dimension of alienation, normlessness, occurs when a student is unable to identify with the norms of behaviour of the school. These norms include wearing school uniform, acting appropriately, and a willingness to abide by the school rules. Most of the students who participated in the study said they were happy to wear school uniform, and felt that most of the school rules were fair and should not be broken.

However, a number of students indicated that they felt that some of the rules were not that important, such as back chatting to a teacher or not leaving the school grounds at lunch time, and that it was alright to ignore these rules, as one student commented, as long as it's (not) going to hurt somebody or injure them or something like that, then it's all right.

The student's understanding of rules and norms was expressed in the sense of protecting the individual from harm or as rules for the individual. There was no conception that the rules were an expression of the values and norms of the school community, and that the rules are there for the promotion of the community and for those who participate in it. Perhaps this is because schools use rules in a negative sense, the emphasis being on discipline, rather than using rules for the promotion of a sense of community.


Student alienation, as exhibited at this school by persistent absenteeism, is a complex issue. Using semi-structured interviews this study investigated the perceptions of students who expressed feelings and thoughts indicating some level of alienation. Based on the analysis of the interviews, twelve of the thirteen students expressed their alienation from their schooling. These students did not like school, they felt powerless, felt they were wasting their time, questioned the relevance of the classes they were taking and found the school a hostile and unfriendly environment.

Some of the most alienated students were not at school to vocalise their views, but by their absence they have expressed their opinion, they do not feel that school was worth persevering with. Six of these students were not interviewed because they were absent during the course of this study and had been absent for most of the year; and a further seven of the most alienated students were considered to be in limbo by the school. This means there were 26 students who could be classified as expressing alienation from their schooling.

The image conjured up by the students' opinions is one of a school that is not meeting students needs, but that is also not listening to the students, perhaps does not know how to listen to the students, or how to interpret what these students are saying. This study may help the school in listening to those who are alienated with their schooling by giving voice to their disaffection, and interpreting their expressions of alienation. Although this is a group of students who are often in trouble with the school's discipline team, they are still worth listening to, the school is also there for their education and needs to meet their educational needs.

Student recommendations for school improvement

The students made several recommendations for improving their school. This last student is of course describing an adult learning environment such as TAFE or university. It is a shame that the student is disqualified from entry as a consequence of their alienation. Perhaps there is the need to introduce adult learning principles earlier in the high school educational setting.

Recommendations for policy and practice

Based on the findings of this study,the following reccommendations were made to the school:


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Please cite as: Oerlemans, K. and Jenkins, H. (1998). Their voice: Student perceptions of the sources of alienation in secondary school. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 1998. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/1998/oerlemans.html

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