By Les Twentyman OAM
Santos was a kid with a difficult family situation, no money and no fixed address. All Santos wanted was to go to school, but he could not afford the books.
That is when he came across two people who I have worked side by side for the past 30 years, Jim Markovski, Richard Tregear and myself and we did what we have always done when we find a kid in need, we helped.
Well that young man Santos did go to school, graduated and won a scholarship to Oxford University to study mathematics, which has led to a career as one of the leading mathematicians in the world.
What a difference that little bit of support made to the life of one man.
Since 1989, our Back to School program has provided education resources, text books and stationery to young people like Santos. The aim of the program is to remove financial barriers to attending school. Research shows that there is a direct correlation between education, or a lack of it, with incarceration – with over 75% of those in prison having not completed secondary school.
There are 3.2 million people living in poverty in Australia including 1.2 million children and young people. When families experience financial disadvantage, their children’s education can be negatively impacted.
We know that the timing of back to school costs is a ‘pressure cooker’ moment for many parents and carers. With families just getting over the cost of Christmas and school holidays, school expenses at the start of the new year tip many over the edge. While public schools offer a free education, many parents and carers are experiencing increased costs associated with education including uniforms, text books, materials, excursions, transport, devices and internet access.
We want to ensure that families are not forced into further financial hardship through accessing credit like payday loans, rent-to-buy and after pay to cover school expenses.
In addition, we know from experience that a lack of funds to purchase school text books and other supplies is a major contributor to school truancy and kids disengaging from their education.
This drives at the heart of why back in the late 80s that I along with the support of some incredibly generous people, such as Ros Andrews, whose family has helped so many organisations, we commenced the Back To School program.
It is a program that we have now run for over 30 years, supporting students in need in whatever way possible to keep them in school. This year alone, we have helped 400 young people get back to school – it’s the equivalent of around $300 per child. While many volunteers and schools support this program, with limited resourcing and funding means we cannot help the thousands more in need.
We are dedicated to this program as we know that there is a direct correlation between education, or a lack of it, with incarceration – with over 75% of those who attend prison not having completed secondary school.
School is the best chance we have of keeping kids on a positive pathway and when they fall out of the education system there is a high likelihood that they will hit the streets, leaving them vulnerable to a life of crime and substance abuse.
Put simply, we should be doing all we can to keep kids in the classroom and out of the courtrooms.
When you are a teenager, fitting in is everything and when kids are wearing an old worn school uniform, carrying second-hand books or cannot participate in school organised sports or activities, they feel isolated. This leads to them not wanting to attend school, add a dysfunctional home and that is how we see young teenagers on the streets, where their anti-social behaviour will lead them to trouble with police and a date in court. Soon they will feel completely disconnected to society, desensitised to the threat of arrest and institutionalised to the point where they have no fear of prison.
Instead they will find a new school, the ‘university of incarceration’, graduating far worse than when they went inside.
With rates of poverty in this nation increasing as the cost of living explodes and we begin to feel the long term impacts of COVID-19, we are creating a divide that sees today only 60% of kids from low socio-economic backgrounds completing high school, compared to 90% of children above the poverty line.
If we are serious about tackling issues of youth crime, then education is the first place we need to start, by ensuring that every child has the same equal opportunities through education as each other.
To do that we need to help every child and if that means waiving fees and costs for books and uniforms, then that is what we must do, for the sake of the child, our community and above all else, because it is the right thing to do.