Better Academic Support for Kids in Residential Care
Thank you, Madam Speaker.
I am proud to bring this motion before the Assembly today. I do so at the urging of some who have worked in residential care homes here in the ACT. These dedicated, passionate youth workers have sought to do all they could to help the children and young people in their care, and they have great hopes for these kids. Their lived experiences have given them insights that we in this chamber should consider carefully and take seriously. Today, I am honoured to bring those insights into this place.
Three weeks ago, I brought a motion before this Assembly calling on the government to commit to supporting the universal extension of out-of-home care services to age 21, including for those in residential care placements. I also asked for improved data collection on young people who have exited care. I am grateful that support for these recommendations was unanimous.
When speaking to my previous motion, I noted that, according to research, 50 per cent of care leavers in Australia end up either homeless, in jail, or as new parents within the first 12 months. We understand that these difficulties are caused in part by an abrupt exit from care before a young person is ready to be independent. This can also include not having a safe place to return to when or if things go wrong. Extending care services to age 21 – including allowing care leavers to re-engage with the system – better replicates the natural process of becoming independent within a supportive family setting.
Another factor known to contribute to poor life outcomes for care leavers is poor educational attainment prior to exiting care and protection. The opposite is also true: ‘educational achievement and positive educational experiences’ whilst in care are protective factors that enhance life outcomes. Unfortunately, though there are clearly exceptions, in general, children and young people in out-of-home care are less likely to attend school or be engaged with learning. Those who do attend ‘are less likely to continue their education beyond the minimum school leaver age, and they are more likely to leave school with poorer levels of academic achievement’. In particular, figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reveal lower levels of both numeracy and literacy amongst students in care, and this gap widens as students proceed from primary school into high school.
Data from the ACT indicate that some of these general trends occur here as well. For example, the 2019 evaluation of the government’s out-of-home care strategy completed by KPMG found that, in the final year of the review, 20 per cent of kids in care didn’t meet the minimum standard for reading, and 13 per cent didn’t meet the minimum standard for numeracy. Both of these figures are three times greater for kids in the care and protection system than for their peers.
Research also reveals that poor educational attainment is more pronounced amongst young people in residential care placements than those in either foster or kinship care. Anecdotal evidence from youth workers in the ACT fully supports this finding. Those who have spoken with me have shared that many young people in residential care homes are disengaged from learning even when they attend school. School attendance is often very poor for others, and youth workers report that many older youth have stopped attending entirely.
Youth workers have shared with me two specific concerns. First, that so many kids in residential care are disengaged from or struggling with learning. Second – and maybe more important – that they lack the confidence and capacity to help these kids re-engage or learn better. In short, they want to help. They know it is an important part of their role as residential care workers. But they don’t know what works best, what doesn’t, or how exactly to go about it.
This is a valid concern – one that needs to be taken very seriously. Youth workers are right that their role is an important one. Research out of Queensland, for example, found that factors contributing to poor educational outcomes for kids in residential care specifically include ‘inadequate support and encouragement from carers’, ‘low academic expectations’ by carers and others, ‘a lack of basic material support for education in a residential care setting’, and ‘inadequate training of residential care staff’.
Academic literature repeatedly identifies the involvement of carers, including residential care staff, as a protective factor when it comes to the educational achievement of kids in care. Researchers Ruth Knight and Sari Rossi, for example, found that kids in care do better with carers who are ‘supportive of educational and extracurricular activities’, especially when carers are able to consistently ‘act as mentors or tutors … to build the child’s cognitive and social skills’. As researchers Marion Coddou and Joseph Borlagdan have found, one key to ‘education success is access to support and encouragement from at least one significant adult … who can give [young people in care] good advice, focus on the opportunities open to them and help them develop a perception of themselves as competent learners’. Confident, capable youth workers can perform this role and/or support others who do. They likewise play a central role in creating home environments that are supportive of learning.
As the Australian Childhood Foundation has noted in relation to residential care, quote, ‘Whenever children or young people are asked … they say it is the staff who make the difference’. Staff intuitively understand this fact, and those who have shared their experiences with me would be grateful to have additional support and training so that they can make a bigger difference.
I take this opportunity to note as well that ‘research indicates that young people in the youth justice system have often experienced … trouble at school, including issues with poor school attendance and performance’. Like residential care youth workers, staff at Bimberi Youth Justice Centre also understand that they have an important role to play in supporting the educational attainment of the young people in their care. As a current online ad states, ‘Bimberi Youth Workers supervise every aspect of a young offender’s life during their time in custody … Bimberi Youth Workers are role models who encourage and motivate young people’. For these reasons, I have included youth justice workers in this motion.
I also wish to note that the government’s out-of-home care strategy acknowledges many of the issues that I have raised and therefore contains a Joint Education and Training Pathways Initiative intended to improve education outcomes. As noted in the KPMG evaluation of the strategy, this initiative includes encouraging attendance, notifying child protection staff of absenteeism, and making sure that each child has an individual learning plan. These are all good things, and Youth Workers have told me that, for example, they do get notified when young people are absent from school. The question remains whether this is enough. Youth workers who have shared their concerns with me emphatically state that it is not.
I emphasise here that this is not a problem unique to the ACT. Research from across Australia shows that kids in residential care are at particular risk of poor educational outcomes. Aware of the importance of education to life outcomes, all states and territories acknowledge that more needs to be done. As I have listened to youth workers, two needs became clear. First, as I mentioned above, is additional support and training for carers so that they can better support the learning of the kids and help create environments that support learning. Second is access to assistance from experts who know how to work with kids to help them re-engage with school and learn better.
The next step was to see what might be happening in other states and territories to address these needs. This search took me to Anglicare Victoria’s TEACHaR program, which this motion specifically recommends for review. This program provides exactly what youth workers have stated that they need. Educational professionals ‘work intensively with children and young people living in out-of-home care, providing them with frequent and regular direct-tutoring (one-on-one) … particularly in regard to literacy- and numeracy-related tasks’. These professionals also provide in-class support, collaborate with and provide specialised support to teachers, and also, importantly, work directly with carers to provide them the confidence, resources and training they need to encourage and extend what is happening ay school and what is happening in individual tutoring sessions. In all cases, the goal is increased school attendance, better educational engagement and bridging the gap between students’ current educational level and age-appropriate benchmarks.
This program has also been rigorously evaluated, with significant results. For example, a snapshot report from 2016 provides data specifically for children and young people in residential care. Only 34 per cent of these kids were assessed as being ‘always or usually engaged in learning’ at the point of entering the program. After six months, nearly 63 per cent were engaged. Just under 20 per cent were reaching ‘average overall academic achievement’ upon service entry. Six months later, this figure had more than doubled.
In light of its success, the TEACHaR program has been awarded the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services … Robin Clark Education Initiative Award’, and I understand that the Victorian Government is in the process of replacing its own Children in Residential Care educational support program with one whose guidelines are based on this Anglicare program. I have spoken with the director of project development and innovation at Anglicare Victoria in preparation for this motion, and she has assured me that they would be thrilled to have the ACT Government review what they are doing to see whether a similar service could be made available here.
In Victoria, the current cost of providing this program to one child or young person for a school term is $5,000. This means that every kid in residential care in Canberra could be supported across four school terms for an amount less than a million dollars. A decision to adopt or replicate a program such as this would need to go through the normal budgeting process, of course, but in the meantime, it is important to keep in mind the known costs of educational disadvantage. As the Victorian Auditor-General has stated in relation to residential care services for children, quote, ‘Studies have found the economic and social costs of not effectively supporting such children are ultimately borne directly by the criminal justice and health systems, and indirectly in the lost productivity associated with poor education levels and homelessness’.
I conclude by thanking the territory’s youth workers. They work in sometimes quite difficult circumstances, but they do so with good hearts and a genuine commitment to the children and young people in their care. I know they make a difference in the lives of these kids, and I love that they are eager to make an even bigger difference. I respect their initiative, which inspired this motion today. I also express my gratitude to the vibrant community services sector. As happens so often in the sector, Anglicare Victoria saw a need, innovated a solution, piloted it, refined it, and in the process helped improve the lives of hundreds of vulnerable kids in care. Their success highlights the essential role performed by community services providers here in Canberra and across Australia. Finally, I want to publicly address the children and young people in this territory’s residential care homes and youth detention centre. To these kids, I say, I believe in you. I value you. I have great hopes for your futures.
Madam Speaker, I commend this motion to the Assembly.
 Letter from Paul McDonald (CEO of Anglicare Victoria) to Elizabeth Kikkert, 16 September 2020, p. 1.  Queensland Department of Communities (Child Safety Services) in partnership with PeakCare Queensland (hereinafter QLD DC), ‘A Contemporary Model of Residential Care for Children and Young People in Care: State-wise Consultation and Literature Review’, 2010, p. 78.  Anglicare Victoria, ‘TEACHaR: Transforming Educational Achievement for Children and Young People in Home Based and Residential Care’, 2016, snapshot report, p. 3.  QLD DC, ‘A Contemporary Model of Residential Care’, pp. 77–78.  Anglicare Victoria, snapshot report, p. 3.  KPMG, ‘A Step Up for Our Kids: One Step Can Make a Lifetime of Difference: ACT Out of Home Care Strategy 2015–2020: Final Report for the Mid-Strategy Evaluation’, 5 June 2019, p. 57.  QLD DC, ‘A Contemporary Model of Residential Care’, p. 78.  Ibid.  Ruth Knight and Sari Rossi, ‘Children in Out-of-Home Care and Their Educational Outcomes: a Literature Review’, Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies, Queensland University of Technology, Sept. 2018, p. 4.  Marion Coddou and Joseph Borlagdan, ‘From Aspiration to Opportunity: Developing Independence in Out-of-Home Care’, Brotherhood of St Laurence, 2018, p. 2.  Knight and Rossi, ‘Children in Out-of-Home Care’, p. 11.  Australian Childhood Foundation, ‘Residential Care in Australia’, 17 Nov. 2016, https://professionals.childhood.org.au/prosody/2016/11/residential-care-in-australia/.  Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (hereinafter AIHW), ‘Australia’s Children’, 2020, p. 356. See also Julie White et al., ‘Improving Educational Connection for Young People in Custody: Final Report’, Victoria University, University of Tasmania, and Deakin University, June 2019, p. 11.  https://horizonone.com.au/working-at-bimberi/.  ACT Government, ‘A Step Up for Our Kids: One Step Can Make a Lifetime of Difference: Out of Home Care Strategy 2015–2020’, Oct. 2014, p. 43.  KPMG, ‘A Step Up for Our Kids’, p. 92.  Anglicare Victoria, ‘TEACHaR: Transforming Educational Achievement for Children in Home-based and Residential Care: Evaluation 2018’, p. 4.  Ibid., p. 5.  Anglicare Victoria, ‘TEACHaR: Transforming Educational Achievement for Children in Home-based and Residential Care: Outcomes that Matter’, p. 7.  Anglicare Victoria, ‘TEACHaR: Transforming Educational Achievement for Children in Home-based and Residential Care: 2016 Snapshot Report’, p. 12.  Ibid.  Ibid., p. 3.  Victorian Auditor-General, ‘Residential Care Services for Children’, Mar. 2014. p. 1.