Who would have thought that half a life time ago in a small country town, analysing a column in a newspaper for Year 10 English, would lead to my proudest achievement in my career?
My journey to working in the youth work sector started early. As a teenager, my mother worked as a teacher’s aide and shared the harrowing stories of young people being mistreated at home, and that school staff could do little more than phone police and child protection. The trauma faced by those young people broke my heart, and I wanted to go into a profession where I could help them both in school, and out of school.
I studied and worked across various roles in the people helping industry, finally landing myself ‘home’ at the Les Twentyman Foundation – then the 20th Man Fund. Shortly thereafter, Mum was cleaning out her desk and found one of my school assignments; I had done a persuasive writing analysis of one of Les’ columns, arguing for more youth workers in schools!
Today I am privileged to lead the very first youth workers in schools program at the Les Twentyman Foundation. Funded by the Department of Social Services, ‘Positive Futures’ works to positively re-engage young people who have already, or are at risk of, disengaging from their education, family and the community. The program operates across three secondary schools in the south eastern suburbs of Melbourne.
We’ve known for a long time that teachers (and teaching staff) are stretched for time, resources and at times, skills for supporting mental health. Young people often require intensive support emotionally and within the family environment that is frequently missed by teachers because there are 24 other students in the class, teachers have to focus on getting as many of those other students through the curriculum.
Families sometimes have had poor experiences with education themselves, whether it be a draconian principal who conjures nightmares when they drop their own child off at school, or they themselves had a traumatic family life which prevented their academic success. This is where our youth workers step in; we provide social, emotional and practical support to students who are at risk of leaving education. Our youth workers are able to be an independent third person at police interviews, and also within the classroom. They can negotiate with teachers on timelines for assignments, and timetables for assessments. They can support parents to have healthy relationships with their kids. They can also provide material support when needed like food for dinner.
To date, the Positive Futures program in secondary schools has supported more than 130 young people. The youth workers have tailored the programs to each school and the students within. We provide one on one counselling, family support and outreach, as well as group projects. The group projects promote team work, problem solving and increase employability skills, all within a non-threatening environment. The young people within these groups have learned life skills and improved their confidence, without realising that was the purpose of the program. I believe this is key in improving outcomes for young people – when you’re on their level and not ‘trying to teach you to be more confident’, the fears, apprehension and resistance subside for truly spectacular learning.
Early data from our mid term evaluation report shows tremendous outcomes for the young people involved with the program. It shows that students report an improvement of immediate crisis, increased knowledge and access to information, improved aspirations for employment and education, improved personal and family safety and increased school attendance. Students also tell us that their behaviour has improved and without the program they would have left school or been expelled.
The true testament to the program and youth workers though, is that other schools are calling us, wanting the program in their classrooms. In late 2019 we were fortunate to commence work at Rangebank Primary school – funded by the school. Unfortunately, not all schools can access the funds and so our program isn’t everywhere it needs to be. I would ultimately love to see this program extend to every Victorian school with the support of State and Federal governments.
Read the full report: Positive Futures 2019 Evaluation Report