School the key to good outcomes for children

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By the time kids drop out of school it’s often too late, experts say. Teachers are even more important for disadvantaged children, write Millicent Spencer and Hannah Williams.

“Kids should be in school, not in prison”, a leading Melbourne social service organisation says.

Jesuit Social Services spokesman Andrew Yule said that one of the earliest risk factors for young people getting into trouble with the law is when they disengage from school.

“It is better to work with children who are at risk of not attending school than do nothing until a child is older and drops out completely,” he said.

Sixty-eight per cent of young offenders have previously been suspended or expelled from school, according to the Youth Parole Board in its 2018-2019 report. The results from the report were based on interviews with 166 males and eight females.

Victoria Police youth resource officer Sen-Constable Greg Garrison said he works to maintain positive relationships with both schools and young people in the community.

“We want to try and divert young people from making those mistakes and let them know what the outcomes can be,” he said.

Sen-Constable Garrison said schools are not lacking resources to engage young people, but rather young people are making a decision to not engage or reciprocate.

“Schools do everything they can within their means and capacity to assist young people, but engagement is where the issue lies,” he said.

“What I tend to find is that the kids who are in that situation usually have something going on in their home life which is causing a lot of issues in and around their education.”

Among these disadvantaged children are young people in residential care.

Clare Schuster, a former law clerk at a criminal youth justice and child protection defence firm Dotchin Tan, said education gives young people a sense of growth and purpose.

In the residential care system, young children often lack the support needed to guide them through some of the most vulnerable yet critical years of their lives, she said.

“I found there to be a particular neglect of young people’s education and mental health,” Ms Schuster said.

“A lack of support in these areas, I believe, could contribute to a higher chance that they end up in the youth justice system.”

Mr Yule said children are often “highly disadvantaged” from as young as 10 years old.

“On 31 December 2018, 67 per cent of the Victorian children aged 10 to 18 in the Parkville and Malmsbury youth justice centres were victims of abuse, trauma or neglect,” he said.

“Children and young people in Victoria’s detention system have complex lives and are often highly disadvantaged,” he said.

“They have often experienced significant trauma and lack positive support from their family, school or peer group.”

Koori engagement officer Wayne Cowley said school was important for children, and Indigenous students sometimes struggled because schools and teachers weren’t making enough effort to engage them.

 Mr Cowley, who does cultural understanding and safety training (CUST) sessions in northwest Victoria, said problems in the teaching environment held Indigenous students back.

“Lots of teachers don’t understand. Some teachers go to school, do what they need to do, get their wage and go home.

“You can tell when a teacher does and doesn’t care about their job.”


Left to Right: The Koori Education team in the Campaspe region – Wayne Cowley, Paul Clarke, Rick Ronnan and Howard Armstrong. Photo supplied.

Victorian Government education statistics from 2019 looked at the degree of connection Koori students felt for their school – students in years 4-6 at 79.3 per cent, years 7-9 at 52.8 per cent, and years 10-12 at 47.1 per cent.

“What we are trying to treat in the CUST is just treating everyone the same isn’t ok,

 some kids need more help and support than others,” he said.

“Most Koori kids can’t focus for more than five minutes so teachers need to be aware, especially if they have had some trauma.”

Mr Cowley said many Indigenous families had never had a good experience with schools, so they did not trust the system, and this attitude affected their children’s response to school.

While many Indigenous children grow up in safe and happy families, many come from more difficult circumstances.

“A lot of the students that come from hardship go to school and their attendance is high – they come to get away from home,” Mr Cowley said.

CUST is a component of the 2016-2026 Marrung Aboriginal Education Plan implemented by the Victorian Government to ensure all Koori kids achieve their learning goals.

Indigenous young people are heavily overrepresented in Victorian youth justice centres.