The not so lucky country

– the plight of students from disadvantaged backgrounds

Since late last year three Australian educational reports, all based on comprehensive research, have shone the spotlight on the significant gaps in educational achievement and participation of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds at all levels of schooling and in the workforce.

These reports give us greater insight into why some students succeed and why some ‘fail’, and their implications should be given greater consideration by governments and policy makers.

Those who miss out

The report Educational Opportunity in Australia 2015 - Who Succeeds and who Misses Out looked at students at four key milestones – readiness for school, succeeding in the middle years, completing school by age 19, engaging in education, training or work at age 24. The results of this report show that while most young people are succeeding, a significant and worrying proportion are missing out at these milestones.

The middle years a concern

The Australian Child Wellbeing Project was conducted by researchers at Flinders University, the University of NSW and the Australian Council for Educational Research and its report Are The Kids Alright? Young Australians in their Middle Years was released early this year. While most young people in their middle years are doing well, a significant proportion have low wellbeing and are missing out on opportunities. Marginalised students are more likely to report lower levels of wellbeing, including high levels of health complaints, experience of bullying, low levels of engagement at school, low levels of subjective wellbeing and low levels of social support. One in five (19%) in the survey reported going hungry to school or bed. These young people were more likely to miss school frequently.

Unprepared for the first year of schooling

The Australian Early Development Census (AECD) is a nationwide measure that looks at how young people have developed by the time they start their first year of full time school. The report released this year on the 2015 results shows that one in five children (20%) were developmentally vulnerable in one or more of five domains, that is in language and cognitive skills, communication skills and general knowledge, physical health and wellbeing, or social competence and emotional maturity. Students from disadvantaged communities have a 33% chance of being developmentally vulnerable, while those with the least disadvantage had a 16% chance.

In respect to other groupings: 28% of boys are considered developmentally vulnerable compared to 15% of girls, and 42% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are in this group. The study shows that from 2012 to 2015 there was some decrease in the vulnerability of children in two of the domains, language and cognitive skills (by 2.4%), and communication and general knowledge (by 1.2%); but an increase in vulnerability in physical health and wellbeing (by .4%) and social competence (by .5%)

Working with students and parents in disadvantaged communities

IE talks with Holy Child Catholic Primary School Principal Alan Smith about some of the key issues in working with disadvantaged students and families.

IE: In your experience, what are the important influences on young people’s wellbeing, and what are the key challenges to successful participation?

Alan: The most important influence is the respectful relationships a young person has formed. Supportive relationships give them feelings of safety and control, and allow them to explore choice and decision making in an environment that
can support and encourage positive social expectations.

I believe the key challenge areas are participation and engagement in schooling, family capacity, and effects of trauma. Participation I see as multilayered – coming to school, arriving on time and staying at school for the full day is the first challenge children from disadvantaged backgrounds often have. The second is the participation of the family in the school and their child’s learning. If children lack role models and good experiences of learning, they can struggle to learn new concepts and gain better understandings. The third is families participating effectively in a community, which celebrates learning and recognises this as authentic. The effect of low participation impacts on self esteem and children can feel they can’t achieve, ‘I’m no good at school and school is boring’. Low emotional connection, self awareness and self management issues can lead to high anxiety, frustration and possible violence.

Another important factor is building family capacity, being able to effectively communicate your needs and or your wants in English, improving the family’s capability to access relevant information to address their needs. The effect can be families lowering their expectations and beginning to ‘silo’, becoming isolated from the community, focusing inwardly and being suspicious of those outside the community leading to distrust and suspicion.

Trauma is also a significant concern for teachers in disadvantaged areas. Trauma may be as explicit as families coming as refugees from the Middle East and Africa resettling in our communities, or it can be more subtle, families experiencing separation and/or family violence. The effect on the individual can be breakdowns in relationships/friendships, unsafe behaviour/violence, withdrawal from social interactions and a myriad of other manifestations.

IE: What strategies do your staff engage in to help students and families engage
in schooling?

Alan: We educate the mothers of our children teaching them English and seeking opportunities to engage them in further learning. We work with other schools and community organisations in partnership clusters and alliances to develop the opportunities for the community to learn and see itself differently. We use our curriculum
to develop multiple connections
between learning, recycle language, ideas and options. We build children’s capacity to learn and be competent in academic English.

We try to reduce trauma through safe stable classrooms, teacher professional learning and a continued focus on building positive relationships with our families (SWPBS). We explore social and emotional competencies throughout our curriculum planning, we invest in staffing with an emphasis on student and staff wellbeing.

Education needs to engage children in active authentic thinking/learning. Teachers should be readily able to answer a series of questions having strong pedagogical content knowledge. Curriculum needs to support teachers in this endeavour, providing connectives to other areas of learning and to real life. Teachers are the most important relationship for young people explicitly teaching and ensuring it is relevant to the child’s needs.

IE: What is the impact of children starting school ‘developmentally vulnerable’ on primary schools and what would you recommend to policy makers and governments?

Alan: The impact is significant. We would recommend continued quality preschooling with an emphasis on early childhood education. An emphasis on parental education would also be a positive opportunity for development, encouraging parents to move away from electronic devises for children to drawing implements and paper, occasionally letting children play with ICT. We would recommend providing learning experiences for children, going to the zoo, local library and local playgroups. We would suggest events that celebrated learning in the local community, bringing families and educators together for meaningful opportunities to demonstrate practical learning.

Alan Smith is the Principal of Holy Child Catholic Primary School in Dallas, Melbourne. The school serves one of the most disadvantaged areas of Victoria.