We like to believe that life is good in the ‘Lucky Country’; that in Australia, we can all access the basics we need to live comfortably, writes Dr Jim Watterston of the University of Melbourne
But our education system has a secret ‘trapdoor’ through which too many of our marginalised and disadvantaged students literally disappear.
Although it is hard to believe, tens of thousands of Australian children, many of them our most vulnerable, are simply not in school. They are being denied an education; one of their most fundamental rights.
These children aren’t absent or ‘school-refusing’; they are completely disconnected from our education system. We call them ‘detached’.
Perhaps most worryingly, we don’t know who they are, where they are, or exactly how many of them are out there.
Take Jack*, for example. He left home at the age of ten and was homeless for the next five years, becoming addicted to ice in that time.
When he stopped attending school in Year Five, nobody really cared. It seems his school didn’t report it and, even if they did, the New South Wales’ education system didn’t have processes in place that would have revealed his circumstances. His family did nothing.
I met Jack when he was 15 at Pathways College in Brisbane, a school dedicated to young people who have rejected, or been rejected by, mainstream education.
With amazing support from school staff, he has since gone on to graduate Year 12, a remarkable achievement, and more recently, has referred his sister to the school.
Sadly, his experience of self-driven reattachment is unusual; more commonly children like Jack struggle to escape the downward spiral of homelessness, crime, mental illness and substance abuse.
In our new report, which I wrote with Megan O’Connell, we conservatively estimate that 50,000 young Australians of compulsory school age are in a similar situation to the one Jack found himself in.
That is, not enrolled in any type of formal education.
This figure is based on the 2016 census, estimations provided by two Australian public school systems and annual UNESCO data from across a range of countries including Australia. In reality, the total could be far higher.
Australia’s lost students (Pursuit/University of Melbourne)