Setting Up Disadvantaged Youth For Failure


The federal government is engaged in a multipronged attack on the most vulnerable and powerless of our citizens, disadvantaged young people.

Ideological in character, self-righteous by its nature, it is relentless and almost certain to set up very many vulnerable young people for failure.

In announcing the draconian cuts to welfare for people under 30 in his federal budget speech, Joe Hockey emphasised the link between ‘earning and learning’ as an eligibility requirement for those benefits that will still be available to young people.

Yet it is in the field of education that the federal government is spectacularly failing many.

The budget puts the final nail in the coffin of any semblance of the Gonski reforms, cutting two-thirds of the funding allocated even by the limited version of Gonski adopted by Labor, ensuring that inequities between educational sectors will persist and that the gap between the privileged and the disadvantaged will continue to grow.

The Coalition position is buoyed by an increasingly popular conservative fantasy that improving the funding of public education is not central to improving educational outcomes and equity.

Strangely, this has never been an argument that it has applied to the non-government school sector, which it has proactively supported since the early years of the Howard government in a deliberate policy of expanding non-government school enrolments and increasing educational segregation.

In his recent speech at Melbourne University, David Gonski disparaged this notion, noting that overall increases to educational funding have not gone where they have been needed.

“I cannot easily forget the differences I saw in the schools I visited. To say that many of the schools in the state systems need further assistance both in money and tender loving care is to me an understatement,” Gonski said.

Data from the PISA testing regime indicates that there is no difference between public and non-government Australian schools once socio-economic factors have been taken into account.

Yet only the public education system takes in all comers regardless of background or ability to pay, and it is the public education system which truly does the bulk of the work in addressing the needs of the disadvantaged.

The actions needed to support such students are no mystery and have always been known to schools; properly resourced and targeted literacy and numeracy programs, the addressing of individual student needs through a range of resourced support measures.

The issue has never been establishing the means or pedagogies to tackle educational disadvantage, nor has it been the quality of teaching.

The issue of educational equity in Australia has always been the reluctance of governments to fund public education fairly and recognise that students in the public sector have the same fundamental right to educational resourcing as anyone else.

Inequity is increasingly compounded when disadvantaged students finish school.

TAFE courses have been cut in many states and territories, and eligibility requirements made more restrictive.

Increased university fees and HECS costs will create yet another hurdle for those who have reached the same academic standards as their better off peers under more difficult circumstances, and no scholarship scheme will equitably alleviate this.

Having denied disadvantaged young people the benefits of an adequately resourced education, the federal government compounds the insult by imposing restrictive educational requirements as a condition of Newstart.

Yet as any educator knows, education is most effective when the choice to take it up is made by the participant.

A mandated but limited educational requirement will restrict more than support, and the blithe but ill-informed manner in which it has been emphasised displays a deeply-rooted attitude of paternalistic contempt towards the disadvantaged.

A realistic educational path which will benefit individuals and society in the long-term has to be one that they have ultimately chosen themselves, that they are committed to and that they have a sense of empowerment in taking.

Such opportunities increasingly denied underprivileged young people.

We do not know the ultimate price of denying young people financial support for six full months, but for some it will surely be dire.

Those who go through state care, young newly arrived refugees, those from low-income backgrounds or with difficult family circumstances will be particularly vulnerable.

These measures will make already difficult lives more difficult, already restricted options even more restrictive, forcing blameless but vulnerable young people into extreme choices, some of which will undoubtedly destroy lives.

In his address to the National Press Club the day after the budget, Joe Hockey declared the changes to be about, “the values that we impart… the aspirations we have…”.

He is right. Despite the incessant moaning of the privileged, Australia is one of the wealthiest societies in the world.

The young lives that will be damaged through this proliferation of attacks on the already very difficult situation of disadvantaged young people will reflect very badly upon us.

* Peter Job teaches English and Humanities at a Victorian government secondary school. He has a Master of Education from Monash University.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.