A few months ago, I received an exasperated message from a teacher. As the peak body for young people, YACVic had been speaking about student wellbeing and the need for a more inclusive education system. This teacher cared deeply about his students’ welfare and knew what a difference a good education could make. But he was suspicious of the notion of youth services telling schools how to do their work. After all, most of us are not standing in front of a year 9 classroom every day. Quite understandably, he asked: what business was this of ours?

What has the community sector got to do with schools?

I’m glad to say this message led to a thoughtful and constructive conversation, and YACVic ended up incorporating the teacher’s points into some advocacy to government. But I was reminded of his question as I sat around the table with the Education Equity Coalition (hosted by Victorian Council of Social Service), planning the Stronger Schools campaign.

Stronger Schools has the backing of several organisations with a clear basis in Victoria’s education system, notably the Victorian Principals Association and the Victorian Student Representative Council (VicSRC), the peak body for school-aged students in Victoria. But many other organisations that have pledged support for Stronger Schools – such as Anglicare, the Disability Discrimination Legal Service, Centre for Multicultural Youth, Berry Street, several headspace centres, and the Council of Single Mothers and their Children – are community-based service providers.

What are we doing here, talking about education?

Youth services have many answers to this. Their answers include: “We work in partnership with schools to build a supportive community around young people”, “Schools are under enormous pressure regarding student wellbeing; we want schools to be better supported”, “We see how school connects to everything else in a young person’s life: family, health, employment, community”, and “Some of us are educating young people in our own flexible learning settings.” Or sometimes, more bluntly, “We’re the ones who pick up the pieces if a young person’s time at school doesn’t work out.”

Organisations providing youth services recognise that the experiences young people have at school profoundly influence the rest of their lives, and help shape the sort of adults they become. We need strong, supportive schools if we are serious about building a more equitable, healthy and cohesive community. A community where fewer people need the help of homelessness services, mental health services, or youth justice providers.

The Stronger Schools campaign

The Stronger Schools campaign puts forward an Action Plan for Inclusive Education. Several of its messages are especially important to us, as the peak body for young people.

Families must be able to afford their children’s education, and schools must be resourced to deliver it.

Cost should not be a barrier to students engaging in the standard curriculum or extra-curricular activities. Equity funding must be adequate to support young people who are facing disadvantage. And schools need the time, resources and staff to support students with complex needs, and to educate all students with disability and/or additional health and developmental needs, on an equitable basis with their peers.

Our community must recognise the huge responsibilities that are placed on schools to support students with complex wellbeing and engagement issues.

There must be adequate resources in place to help students "make the jump" successfully from primary to secondary school, to build the health and wellbeing of students, and to help schools become culturally safe and welcoming of all students. School expulsion should be a last resort, and no student should be excluded from the education system as a whole. Students who are at risk of disengagement from school, or who have disengaged, should have access to intensive case management and other programs to keep them connected with learning. There should be comparable student resourcing between young people who are in school and those who are re-engaging through flexible learning and vocational options.

The importance of listening to students and supporting them to make meaningful choices

Stronger Schools calls for mechanisms in every school to improve students' involvement in their own learning and decision-making in the school community. The campaign also asks for investment in holistic education models, so every student has access to a wide range of options, including Vocational Education and Training (VET), Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL) and high quality flexible learning.

The Victorian Government’s investment in students and education

The Victorian Government has made very substantial commitments in the education space. For example, the 2018 state budget saw (among other things) the state-wide expansion of the Navigator program to support disengaged students back into education; the piloting of a new school-based apprenticeship and trainee program in 100 schools; significant funding for new models of careers education in schools; the continuance of the Camps, Sports and Excursions Fund to help cover educational costs for students facing disadvantage; $65.5 million over four years to support student health and wellbeing; and $31.6 million to foster inclusive school practice towards students with disabilities. All these initiatives were welcomed enthusiastically by the youth sector. But further, ongoing commitments are needed to build on these positive investments and ensure that Victoria is providing the best school experience to all students.

We’re seeking commitments to Stronger Schools from all parties contesting the 2018 state election. It's a privilege to be involved in the Stronger Schools campaign, working with school communities and providers of youth services to help realise the role of schools in building a better Victorian community.

Add your voice to the Stronger Schools campaign

Sign the petition for stronger schools, send your individual messages to the major parties, and stay in touch with Victoria’s progress towards more supportive and inclusive education. Discover what’s happening on social media using #strongerschools.

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