Kindergarten students sitting on the floor

‘Rattling down the edge of a roller coaster’ Children Young People and Families

‘Rattling down the edge of a roller coaster’

Here are three scenarios that might sound unrelated but aren’t.

A grandparent who’s recently taken custody of her two grandchildren and had to give up work. She’s never accessed welfare support and is too embarrassed to speak to the kids’ school when she’s struggling to pay for textbooks, uniforms, shoes, devices, excursions.

An Aboriginal sole father of four children, two in primary and two in high school. He parents full-time, and about half his Centrelink benefits are eaten up by rent. He wants to support his kids through their education, including by giving them access to fun and healthy extra-curricular activities, but this year he struggled to pay for basics like car registration.

And the parents of three kids, one of whom is on the Autism spectrum. They don’t speak much English and also care for their elderly aunt. They want to make sure all their kids can fully participate in school, but a lot of their money goes on medications and medical tests and they struggle to afford uniforms and textbooks.

One link between these people is that they all just want to give their kids the best possible start in life through education.

Another is that they’ve all received help from a small community organisation which, among other things, delivers a school support program to assist people with the cost of keeping their kids in school.

VCOSS spoke with Leanne Petrides from Community Information & Support Cranbourne (CISC) about how hard parents and care-givers are doing it, and what needs to change.

The way we operate at CISC is about responding to the particular needs of our local community.

How our school support program started is we noticed that from December to February every year we had a massive spike in the number of people coming to us for basic emergency relief support – food and petrol and help buying medicines, that sort of thing.

What we learned was that, for many of these families, there was an underlying story – they only needed emergency relief because of the amount of money they were having to spend on education costs for their children.

If children don’t have the right uniform or textbooks there might be consequences from the school, or they might be bullied. They might not want to go to school.

In the first year we provided the school support program, in 2005, we managed to assist around 60 families. Last year we were able to help nearly 200.

Over the years we’ve developed kind of a tri-fold approach.

Part of it is talking to families about what they do and don’t have to pay for. Things like ‘voluntary fees’ – what does that actually mean? Particularly for families for whom English is a second language, they often think, well, this is what I have to pay. So a big part of it is unpacking that, and also discussing book lists, stationary lists, that sort of thing.

A second prong of the approach is talking to some of our local schools. Especially in the early days of the program we found that some schools weren’t quite aware of the situation for a lot of families.

If children don’t have the right uniform or textbooks there might be consequences from the school, or they might be bullied. They might not want to go to school.

So schools might be putting kids in detention for not wearing the appropriate uniform, particularly school shoes. We’ve had conversations with local schools over the years about the reasons kids might not be wearing school shoes, and about being careful what sort of textbooks might be on the book lists, things like that.

And of course the final part of what we provide is financial assistance for families.

We were very lucky to be part of CISVic’s pilot program with State Schools’ Relief, so we’re able to assist many more families with school uniform items.

Now though, as well as help with uniforms and textbooks and things like that, we’re seeing the most requests coming for big-ticket items like laptops, computers and iPads, the devices that kids are needing now as everyday items.

We’ve been really lucky in that, while the only government funding we had was some support for a few years from our local council, we’ve been supported by donations from a lot of local community organisations like the Salvation Army and Rotary, and others – sometimes very diverse groups within the community who were so supportive of local families being given help with education expenses. It was wonderful because there’s that element of working collaboratively with another local welfare service, which can only benefit clients in the long run.

We also had some support from a pretty large philanthropic organisation, but unfortunately they changed their priorities last year, so we lost $25,000 a year. Last year was the first year that we had a pretty massive reduction in funding for the program.

It’s a tough year for people, with the post-COVID recession and the reduction in JobSeeker payments. We’re looking down a pretty dark hole of a financial shortfall and my gut feeling is that we’re going to really struggle.

We’ll be looking for donations, making applications to other philanthropic organisations, but we all know how competitive that is at the moment; there are lots of great programs needing support and philanthropy only has pockets that are so deep.

So in the next year I think we’re going to have to knock a few people back and prioritise who we can assist. Do we focus on families who are at high-risk times, like the transition from grade six to seven? Lots of new school costs and it’s an important time for children. But year ten can also be really tricky because you’ve got all those elective costs, when children are starting to hone in on what they’re wanting to do. And then of course the VCE years, years 11 and 12, are critical as well.

We find ourselves in a place where we have to make decisions about who we have to say no to. None of those decisions are taken lightly.

It feels a bit like being on a roller coaster, on the slow uphill climb. It sort of plateaus out a little bit in the middle of the year but we know what’s coming. Come November when we’re moving into that period of school costs, right when there’s Christmas and school holidays, in an area where we have a high number of families in need. It’s just a massive confluence of factors, rattling down that edge of the roller coaster.

Education, keeping kids in school, can be a cut-through in terms of breaking the poverty cycle.

In next week’s state budget we hope the Victorian Government funds state schools to a level where everything in the curriculum can be covered, including textbooks and devices.

And community organisations need secure ongoing funding so we can keep helping families to meet any shortfall.

Because ‘free’ education needs to actually be free.