Children at risk in the education system

Introduction

10.21 For the majority of children, school builds on and complements the emotional and financial resources that their families provide for their development. However, for a number of students family support is inadequate. Other children may require particular support as a result of behavioural or learning difficulties. These children are often at risk of dropping out of education and consequently becoming enmeshed in the care and protection and/or juvenile justice systems.[36] The information kit released for the launch of NCAVAC acknowledges the link between poor school attendance and performance and involvement in juvenile justice processes.

Pre-school enrichment programs for children at risk, remedial education programs for poor school performers and truancy reduction programs are all likely to yield crime prevention benefits.[37]

Appropriate intervention at the right point in the school life of these children at risk can greatly increase their chances of completing and succeeding in secondary education.[38]

10.22 The federal Minister for Schools has reported publicly that 30% of young Australian teenagers cannot read properly and that there has been no improvement in literacy standards in the past 20 years.[39] One young woman participating in the Newcastle Focus Group told us that she left primary school without being able to read.[40] Longitudinal research conducted to determine what individual, environmental and social factors increase the risk of juvenile offending suggests that school failure is a major factor.[41] Improving children's literacy also improves their confidence and their later employment opportunities.[42]

10.23 Children have no legal right to ensure that they are given an adequate education. For example, they are unable to sue the state or their education provider if they leave school with inadequate literacy or numeracy. However, recent policy initiatives seek to ensure suitable education outcomes for each student.

10.24 In March 1997 MCEETYA agreed to a national literacy and numeracy plan to ensure children can read, write, count and spell adequately by their fourth year of school.[43] As part of the plan all students at risk will be identified and their literacy and numeracy needs met by extra support. The Commissions support this initiative as a means of ensuring all children are better educated, more employable and less likely to turn to crime out of necessity or boredom.

10.25 Like students with poor literacy, homeless young people are at a high risk of dropping out of school.[44] Again, this can mean they are more likely to become involved in criminal activity.

The link between inadequate education and offending and homelessness is obvious to those who work in the Children's Court.[45]

10.26 Most teachers are highly professional and committed to their students. However, the demands of the contemporary classroom may make it difficult for them to identify all students at risk without specialised training. While teachers are primarily educators not welfare workers, they are best placed to identify and provide initial support to these students. Teachers require appropriate professional development training in identifying students at risk and referring them to appropriate government and non-government services.[46] This will also benefit other students whose learning is less likely to be interrupted if those at risk are receiving the appropriate support. Teachers in non-government schools should be able to access this training on a fee for service basis.[47]

Recommendation 39 All teachers and school counsellors should receive professional development training in identifying children at risk of dropping out of school and referring them to appropriate government and non-government support services and programs. Particular attention should be given to recognising this risk at the end of primary school and the beginning of secondary school.

Implementation. State and Territory education departments should provide this training.

Family support programs

10.27 The Students at Risk or STAR Program, which was administered by DEETYA, aimed to identify and support children at risk of dropping out of education. The program was wound up in December 1996 even though the Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training recently recommended that, subject to evaluation, it be extended until 2000.[48]

10.28 There are a number of programs in schools throughout Australia designed to address some of the health and nutrition needs of children from poorer families. Addressing these needs helps children to concentrate in class and means they are less likely to be excluded from school because of hunger-related behavioural problems or easily treated contagious conditions such as lice. Early intervention is essential.

[T]here are links between early childhood experiences and later offending and there is increasing evidence that interventions can be successful.[49]

Intervention and welfare programs are far less effective once children have reached high school and are already in a lifestyle of offending.[50]

10.29 One example of an effective local family support program described to the Inquiry is the school welfare program aimed at reducing truancy and absenteeism which has been running for four years in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia. The program employs a full time nurse who tries to ensure all children are well enough to participate properly in school. This can involve showering them, treating them for lice or scabies and providing meals.[51] The children in the Kalgoorlie community who are identified as being most at risk are placed together in one school. 98% of the 70 children participating in 1996 were Indigenous. Once children are healthy and have gained confidence they are transferred to other schools and their progress monitored. The school attendance rates of children generally improve dramatically once they are participating in the program.[52] The program has funding from the WA Education Department, donations and the STAR Program until the end of 1997.

10.30 Another example of an effective intervention program is the Schools as Community Centres Project being trialled in four NSW primary schools. The $300 000 program is funded jointly by the Departments of School Education, Community Services and Health and aims to prevent disadvantage for children starting school. A facilitator is placed in each participating school to work with the local community and agencies to improve service delivery to families with children from birth to five years.[53]

10.31 An interim evaluation of the Schools as Community Centres Project found high community involvement in and support for local projects and improved interagency co-ordination.[54] It is anticipated that the Project will be extended throughout NSW. Family support programs of this nature are relatively inexpensive and the long term 'savings' to society in terms of diverting offending behaviour and reliance on income support are likely to more than cover the cost.[55]

Ultimately the cost effectiveness of the [Schools as Community Centres] Project will rest on whether it does prevent disadvantage for children entering school and whether this in turn results in fewer learning and behaviourial problems in school, less delinquency, higher workforce participation and so on.[56]

10.32 Family support and early intervention programs are a fundamental means of protecting against later juvenile offending. They are relatively inexpensive and have additional long term benefits in terms of children's physical and social development. The federal Government should re-establish the STAR program as a matter of priority.

10.33 Additional local programs to identify and support at-risk and disadvantaged students and encourage their continued participation in education should also be developed through community initiatives. In particular, these programs should include providing transport to schools, assistance with meals and primary health care and homework support. Education advice services would also be useful. Overseas examples of successful programs in this area include the Advisory Centre for Education in London which has been operating for over 35 years. It provides free, independent advice on education matters to students and their parents. The Centre for Studies in Integration in Bristol specialises in information and advice on exclusion.

10.34 In addition to these programs, the Inquiry considers it important for all schools to provide appropriate counselling services to support students at risk and to ensure as far as possible that others do not move into an at-risk group. National standards for student support services in primary and secondary schools should be developed.[57] The standards should provide guidance on matters such as the ratio of counsellors to students, identifying schools that require specialist services to support disadvantaged families and young people, and intervention programs aimed at meeting the needs of children who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.[58]

Recommendation 40 In recognition of the relationship between effective early intervention and diverting involvement with the juvenile justice system, the STAR program should be re-established.

Implementation. The Minister for Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs should give effect to this recommendation in the next budget allocation.

Recommendation 41 For the same reason, additional local programs to identify and support at-risk and disadvantaged students and encourage their continued participation in education should be developed.

Implementation. These programs should be developed and implemented by State and Territory education departments in conjunction with DEETYA, peak bodies from the independent school sector and relevant community groups.

Recommendation 42 National standards for student support services in primary and secondary schools should be developed. These standards should take appropriate account of the nexus between access to primary and secondary education and involvement with the juvenile justice system.

Implementation. DEETYA should develop these standards in conjunction with State and Territory education departments and in consultation with OFC.

Children with disabilities

10.35 Article 23(3) of CROC sets out the particular rights of children with a disability. The article specifically provides that children must have effective access to education in a manner conducive to achieving the fullest possible social integration and individual development.

10.36 Some Australian children with a disability face difficulty in receiving education.[59] For example,the Inquiry received several submissions on the difficulties experienced by children with behavioural disabilities such as Attention Deficit Hyper-Activity Disorder.[60] Legislation at both federal and State and Territory level prohibits discrimination against people with a disability in the provision of education services.[61] Discrimination in education is the third most common ground of complaint to the Disability Discrimination Commissioner.[62]

10.37 A number of education advisory services in the UK provide information specifically on special education issues.[63] For example, the Enfield Parents Centre was established as a parent partnership scheme to deal with special educational needs although it now deals with the full range of education matters. The Independent Panel of Special Education Advisors provides free second opinions, free representation and lay advocates. The Inquiry commends these initiatives.

10.38 During a recent review of services for people with a disability, the ALRC received evidence about the particular difficulties faced by children under the age of 14, particularly in relation to education services.[64] The ALRC recommended the collection of data and information to allow the identification of people with particular access problems.[65] The Inquiry supports this proposal as it would give service providers in the States and Territories a better idea of the scope and extent of the support services required.

10.39 In 1995 MCEETYA established a taskforce to consider the development of disability standards in education.[66] The Inquiry considers that this project should be given priority. Young people with a disability must have equitable access to appropriate education to maximise their employment opportunities thus reducing the likelihood of them coming into adverse contact with legal processes.[67]

10.40 In addition, the Inquiry supports the National Children's and Youth Law Centre's recommendation that school principals should facilitate the training of all their staff in disability, disability discrimination laws and obligations, and how to meet the educational and social development needs of students with a disability.[68]

Recommendation 43 Each State and Territory education department should ensure that all teaching staff and school administrators are trained in disability, disability discrimination laws and obligations, and how to meet the educational and social development needs of students with a disability.

Indigenous children

10.41 A number of submissions to the National Inquiry into the Removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children From Their Families drew attention to the relationship between past racist policies and practices in education that excluded or marginalised Indigenous children and contemporary low secondary school retention rates and low participation in tertiary education.

Truanting and early school leaving are intimately connected with the likelihood of child welfare and juvenile justice intervention.[69]

10.42 Health problems can have a significant impact on Indigenous students. Recent research has suggested that the high incidence of hearing loss as a consequence of middle ear disease, affecting between 20% and 40% of Indigenous people, may be a contributory factor in the development of social problems leading to criminal behaviour.[70] If students cannot hear properly in the classroom they will quickly fall behind and may develop behavioural problems as a result that lead to dropping out of or being excluded from school. This then increases the risk of coming into contact with juvenile justice processes.[71]

10.43 The Australian Reconciliation Convention recently expressed support for the adoption by all school systems across Australia of measures to achieve equitable educational outcomes for Indigenous students.[72] The Inquiry supports a national approach to improving the education standard and experience of Indigenous young people.

10.44 The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Policy was endorsed by all governments in 1989 and came into effect from 1 January 1990.[73] The policy sets out 21 long-term goals for Indigenous education under four themes: involvement, access, equity of participation and outcomes. In 1994 the National Review of Education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples found that the Policy is having a significant effect on improving education outcomes for Indigenous people.[74] The Inquiry is particularly supportive of the Policy goals aimed at improving school retention rates and literacy rates for Indigenous students.

Fees and charges in government schools

10.45 Tuition in Australian government schools is supposed to be free. CROC also recognises that every child has a right to free education at least in primary school.[75] Increasingly, however, primary and secondary schools are inviting voluntary contributions to the general support of the school. In addition, most schools have subject levies that parents are asked to pay to defray certain costs associated with particular subjects or activities.[76]

10.46 Many in the community are concerned that these contributions and levies leave children from economically disadvantaged families with an inferior standard of education.[77] In its recently released report on private and commercial funding in government schools the Senate Employment, Education and Training Reference Committee found

... for many parents, the pressure to contribute financially to schools exacerbates difficulties they already face in meeting the growing costs of schooling.[78]

Most State and Territory education policies explicitly preclude practices that would punish or humiliate students of families unable to pay their voluntary contributions. Despite this the Committee found that in many instances considerable pressure is brought to bear on families to pay these contributions and other levies and charges. Unacceptable measures used by some schools to encourage payment of fees and charges include withholding academic reports, seating students whose voluntary contributions have not been paid in a special row and denying them the use of books and marking students as absent so that Austudy or Abstudy payments cease.[79]

10.47 There may be some circumstances in which it is reasonable to request the families of students who can afford it to contribute to the cost of their education in public schools.[80] However, children from poorer families must not receive a lesser standard of education as a result of the fees and charges regime and inadequate government funding. Again, the Inquiry is concerned to reduce the likelihood of young people coming into adverse contact with legal processes as a result of poor education leading to inadequate employment opportunities.

Those young people who are least likely to continue in post-compulsory education and who are most likely to be unemployed are the poor and disadvantaged — the very same young people who are most likely to have contact with the criminal justice system.[81]

10.48 The Senate Employment, Education and Training References Committee has stressed the importance of government policy on voluntary contributions or the levying on any other charges in public schools being clearly delineated. The Committee recommended that this information be provided to all parents at the start of each school year in the form of a Charter of School Education.[82] The Inquiry supports this recommendation and considers that, when a Charter is being developed, careful consideration should be given to ensuring that 'voluntary' school fees and charges do not impact on certain children in a discriminatory manner.[83]

Recommendation 44 Government schools should distribute a Charter of School Education to each family at the start of each school year. The Charter should set out

  • the nature and extent of the education that will be provided in government schools at no cost to parents

  • government policy on voluntary contributions and any subject levies and charges and the rights and obligations of parents and students in relation to each

  • information on any financial assistance provided by government agencies, community groups and the school itself to assist families experiencing financial hardship with the costs of schooling.

Implementation. The Minister for Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs should seek the agreement of MCEETYA to the development of this Charter.

[36] P Harris All Our Children: Child Poverty Policy Review No 4 Brotherhood of St Laurence Melbourne 1990, 10. See also C Chamberlain & D McKenzie 'School students at risk' (1996) 15(4) Youth Studies Australia 11.

[37] NCAVAC Unit Young People and Crime — General Fact Sheet No 6 Attorney-General's Dept Canberra 1997.

[38] B Kerr Public Hearing Submission Kalgoorlie 4 July 1996; Aboriginal Justice Council (WA) Minutes of Meeting Perth 5 July 1996.

[39] D Kemp, Minister for Schools, Vocational Education and Training Media Release 14 March 1997. The findings of the recent National School English Survey of primary school students have been controversial due to disagreement between the federal Government and the States and Territories about the benchmarks used in the survey. The Cth is planning to tie schools funding to literacy results: 'Schools told to improve or else' The Sydney Morning Herald 16 September 1997, 1.

[40] 13 May 1996.

[41] See eg DP Farrington 'Implications of criminal career research for the prevention of offending' (1990) 13 Journal of Adolescence 93, 109.

[42] See E Orr Australia's Literacy Challenge: The Importance of Education in Breaking the Poverty Cycle for Australia's Disadvantaged Families The Smith Family Sydney 1994.

[43] D Kemp, Minister for Schools, Vocational Education and Training Media Release 14 March 1997.

[44] HREOC Our Homeless Children: National Inquiry into Homeless Children AGPS Canberra 1989, 56–58; House of Representatives Standing Committee on Community Affairs Report on Aspects of Youth Homelessness AGPS Canberra 1995, 260–262.

[45] G Levine SM 'At the Children's Court' (1995) 8(9) Parity 8, 9.

[46] This proposal is supported by Townsville Community Legal Service DRP Submission 46 and by NT Government DRP Submission 71 provided there are no resource implications. Kreative Kids DRP Submission 35 and Australian Secondary Principals' Association DRP Submission 89 stressed that for such a recommendation to be effective there must be adequate community services to which young people can be referred for support and treatment.

[47] Association of Independent Schools of Vic DRP Submission 13.

[48] House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training Report of the Inquiry into Truancy and Exclusion of Children and Young People from School AGPS Canberra 1996 rec 11. A number of new programs have been established since the winding up of the STAR program but they target homeless young people specifically: see paras 9.50-51.

[49] J Bright Crime Prevention In America: A British Perspective Office of International Criminal Justice University of Illinois Chicago 1992, 23.

[50] B Kerr Public Hearing Submission Kalgoorlie 4 July 1996.

[51] ibid.

[52] Social Systems and Evaluation Inter-Agency Community Centres Pilot Project: Interim Evaluation Report unpublished NSW Dept of School Education 1996.

[53] One Project initiative is the fun family reading program at Coonamble which aims: to provide children with a greater opportunity to develop their literacy and numeracy skills by school entry through parent involvement in pre-literacy and literacy-based activities; to strengthen parent/child relationships to prevent neglect and abuse and enhance children's educational and life potential; to empower the parents of young children to develop further their own literacy and that of their children. There are similar family support and parent education projects in the community sector, eg, Tresillian Family Care Centres: A Partridge, Tresillian Family Care Centres Public Hearing Submission Parramatta 7 August 1996.

[54] Social Systems and Evaluation Inter-Agency Community Centres Pilot Project: Interim Evaluation Report unpublished NSW Dept of School Education 1996.

[55] See para 5.19. See also J Bright Crime Prevention In America: A British Perspective Office of International Criminal Justice University of Illinois Chicago 1992, 32.

[56] Social Systems and Evaluation Inter-Agency Community Centres Pilot Project: Interim Evaluation Report unpublished NSW Dept of School Education 1996, 30.

[57] This proposal was supported by Australian Secondary Principals' Association DRP Submission 89.

[58] This proposal was supported by SA Independent Schools Board DRP Submission 31 although it considered that all students, not just those in government schools, should be covered by such programs. See also Kreative Kids DRP Submission 35; Townsville Community Legal Service DRP Submission 46. cf NT Government DRP Submission 71.

[59] See eg C Flynn Disability Discrimination in Schools: Students and Parents Speak Out National Children's and Youth Law Centre Sydney 1997. See also Autistic Association of NSW DRP Submission 40.

[60] eg M Wall Public Hearing Submission Perth 2 July 1996; S Moran IP Submission 73. The Inquiry is aware that there is a certain degree of controversy concerning the alleged over-diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyper-Activity Disorder. See eg M Sweet 'Teachers may be real culprits for unruly children' The Sydney Morning Herald 30 July 1997, 1.

[61] Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth) s 22; Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW) s 49L; Equal Opportunity Act 1995 (Vic) s 37; Anti-Discrimination Act 1991 (Qld) ss 37–39; Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (SA) s 74; Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (WA) s 66I; Discrimination Act 1991 (ACT) s 18; Anti-Discrimination Act 1992 (NT) s 29.

[62] HREOC Annual Report 1995–96 AGPS Canberra 1996, 104.

[63] See also para 10.33.

[64] ALRC Report 79 Making Rights Count: Services for People with a Disability ALRC Sydney 1996, 143–144.

[65] id rec 28.

[66] HREOC Annual Report 1995-96 AGPS Canberra 1996, 108. Under Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth) s 31 the Attorney-General can develop disability standards that are legally binding once they have been approved by both Houses of the Parliament.

[67] See para 18.122 for a discussion of the likely over-representation of young people with some forms of disability in the juvenile justice system.

[68] C Flynn Disability Discrimination in Schools: Students and Parents Speak Out National Children's and Youth Law Centre Sydney 1997 rec 1.

[69] Bringing Them Home HREOC Sydney 1997, 552. See also para 10.52.

[70] D Howard et al 'Aboriginal hearing loss and the criminal justice system' (1993) 3(65) Aboriginal Law Bulletin 9.

[71] The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody noted that the effects of hearing impairment on educational achievement had been commented on in evidence given about a number of deaths in custody: National Report Vol 2 AGPS Canberra 1991, 351. See para 10.62.

[72] (1997) 19 Working Together 14.

[73] DEETYA National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Policy DEETYA Canberra 1989.

[74] Reference Group for Overseeing the National Review of Education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People National Review of Education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples: Summary and Recommendations AGPS Canberra 1994, 6.

[75] art 28(1).

[76] For an overview of the position in the various jurisdictions see Senate Employment, Education and Training References Committee Not a Level Playground: The Private and Commercial Funding of Government Schools Senate Printing Unit Canberra 1997, 11-18.

[77] eg P Harris All Our Children: Child Poverty Policy Review No 4 Brotherhood of St Laurence Melbourne 1990, 72; NSW Federation of School Community Organisations IP Submission 97. Income support is available to the families of some financially disadvantaged secondary students and to some independent students: see paras 9.20, 9.25-33.

[78] Senate Employment, Education and Training References Committee Not a Level Playground: The Private and Commercial Funding of Government Schools Senate Printing Unit Canberra 1997, 46. See also Confidential DRP Submission 1.

[79] Senate Employment, Education and Training References Committee Not a Level Playground: The Private and Commercial Funding of Government Schools Senate Printing Unit 1997, 55.

[80] See SA Independent Schools Board DRP Submission 31.

[81] I O'Connor 'Models of Juvenile Justice' Paper Juvenile Crime and Juvenile Justice: Towards 2000 and Beyond AIC Conference Adelaide 26–27 June 1997, 3.

[82] See Senate Employment, Education and Training References Committee Not a Level Playground: The Private and Commercial Funding of Government Schools Senate Printing Unit Canberra 1997 rec 4.

[83] The assertion that financial contributions to government schools must not be discriminatory was supported by: SA Independent Schools Board DRP Submission 31; Kreative Kids DRP Submission 35; Townsville Community Legal Service DRP Submission 46. cf NT Government DRP Submission 71 that considered this a matter for individual schools to negotiate with parents.