The Smith Family: Closing the educational gap for disadvantaged children

Dec 15
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When families don’t have the money for even basic everyday necessities, being able to meet the requirements for their child’s schooling is an added burden. But, perhaps even more concerning, is their children are less likely to achieve at the same academic level as their more advantaged peers.

Whose responsibility is it to look after the children whose families are struggling to make ends meet? Who will ensure they have the same opportunities to improve their educational and longer-term life outcomes?

A child living in disadvantage is already behind in literacy and numeracy skills when they start school. There is also a strong likelihood that this achievement gap will grow over the course of their schooling.

For example, there is more than a 10 per cent gap in their Year 12 achievement compared to other more advantaged students.  And from a labour market participation perspective, 42 per cent of 17-24 year olds from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are not fully engaged in work or study compared to 17 per cent among the most advantaged. 

Generational disadvantage

A child living in disadvantage is also much less likely to attend university than their more advantaged peers.  The most distressing thing about this situation is that, without intervention, there is a high risk that the cycle of disadvantage will be perpetuated into the next generation. 

Poor educational outcomes are associated with higher levels of long-term risk in areas such as physical and mental health and employment outcomes, and so the cycle continues.

About 20 years ago, The Smith Family moved away from a broad welfare focus to concentrate on changing the life outcomes of disadvantaged children through the power of education.  This isn’t to say welfare support isn’t needed for these families, indeed many of them rely heavily on the additional support provided by our partner agencies at times of real crisis. 

Rather, The Smith Family decided, on the basis of the compelling evidence and feedback from families about what they wanted for their children, to take an early intervention approach to address intergenerational poverty.  We know:

  • Education is a key enabler of economic and social participation;
  • Improving educational outcomes is the most cost effective way of addressing intergenerational disadvantage and welfare dependency;
  • Significant numbers of young people are not achieving the outcomes needed to participate in employment in the 21st century; and
  • Early intervention is urgently needed to improve young people’s educational outcomes and avoid long term costs to government and the broader community.

The responsibility for ensuring all children, regardless of their background, can have the opportunity to thrive is not the job solely of schools.  We all have a role to play – those of us within government, business, community organisations and as individuals, to prevent poor children from becoming poor adults. All of us need to be working together to provide the many thousands of children who are growing up in disadvantage with the support they need to participate fully in their education.

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Submitted by Dr Lisa O’Brien

Dr Lisa O'Brien

Dr Lisa O’Brien is CEO of Australia’s major education-oriented children’s charity and has driven a five year plan to grow the effectiveness and reach of The Smith Family’s education-oriented programs to support more disadvantaged children and young people. Lisa has worked in leadership roles across the public, not-for-profit and commercial sectors over the last two decades. She is a non-executive director of the Community Council for Australia and BUPA Australia & New Zealand, member of Chief Executive Women and former CEO of the Skin and Cancer Foundation Australia. Lisa was also a founding member of Sydney’s Lou’s Place, a drop-in centre providing respite and support for women in need.

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