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Educational disadvantage: rising to the challenge

It was approaching Christmas in 1922 and a group of five weary businessmen stopped at the Woolpack Hotel in Parramatta.


It had been a tough slog journeying back to Sydney from the Blue Mountains – so a little refreshment was called for.


Over their cool drinks, a lively discussion ensued about the gifts their children would get for Christmas and how fortunate they were to experience all the joys of the season. That got them to talking about poverty – and in particular the extent of child poverty in Sydney.


They wondered: how would Christmas be for these children? Some of the men didn’t think the problem was as big as the others claimed – so they agreed they’d research it and then come back together to share their findings. 


“A good education provides disadvantaged children with the chance to change their futures for the better.”


Their investigations confirmed poverty was rife across Sydney and the effects on children were dreadful. It wasn’t too long after that the five of them turned up at an orphanage with sweets and gifts. A grateful Matron was looking for a name for the boys to thank.


“They can thank Smith,” said one of the businessmen. “Yes,” agreed another, “Smith, we’re all Smiths here.”


Of course, The Smith Family organisation has changed dramatically since then but some things have stayed the same, namely:


  • Poverty remains a huge problem in our country;
  • our organisation still helps children in need;
  • we research the problem we seek to solve and use evidence to craft our solution; and
  • we continue to promote humility in the act of giving.


However, there is one vital element which has changed significantly. The Smith Family’s support is no longer welfare oriented. Today, we focus on supporting the educational attainment of children in need.


The premise, supported by evidence, is that a good education provides disadvantaged children with the chance to change their futures for the better.


Today our programs are well embedded in places like Wagga Wagga - as they are in 93 other communities in every state and territory.


I’m thrilled we are now in a position to grow the reach of our Learning for Life program. Every child on our program receives financial, personal and programmatic support – for the duration of their education – in an effort to ensure they attend school regularly, progress through school to complete Year 12 and achieve post-school engagement in further study, training or work.


By June 2020 The Smith Family will be doubling the number of young people supported in Wagga Wagga, from the current 600 to 1,200 students.


In my experience, people in rural and regional Australia really understand the power of working together to tackle problems.


In close-knit communities like Wagga you’re more likely to know someone dealing with adversity and so there seems to be a greater willingness to help. There’s a shared understanding around the benefits of ‘pitching in’ – of working together to resolve issues.


And that’s a good thing – because in Wagga Wagga, as in many communities around Australia, there are young people who are facing some pretty big challenges. 

Educational disadvantage


We have a really big problem here in Australia - and it’s a problem that doesn’t seem to be galvanising people with the sense of urgency needed to address it. So let me give you an idea of the scale of this problem.


I want you to imagine you are walking from Wagga Wagga to Broken Hill – yes, walking. So imagine that long road ahead of you and think about how many steps you will take to get to your destination.

I can tell you: it is, in fact, 1.1 million steps to get to Broken Hill from Wagga Wagga.


Now imagine that every step you take on that journey, you pass a child. Yes - 1.1 million - because that is how many children and young people live in poverty in Australia today.


We are living in an era of unprecedented economic growth – and yet, as a country, we are not making significant inroads into reducing child poverty.


How is it that a nation so prosperous has more than a million young people who are doing it tough?

And why is this not a top priority for our country, when the consequences affect us all?


Rising to the challenge


I’m aware that as CEO of The Smith Family, I’m in a very privileged position to be able to meet families all over the country who have been dealt a particularly tough hand, and yet are striving to create a better life for their children.


It has given me insight and a deep concern for the young people in our communities who are struggling daily with the effects of financial hardship brought on by accidents, illness or unemployment within their family.


Families pushed into poverty, often by events beyond their control that could happen to any one of us.


When I think of these families, it is the little details that stick with you:


  • I think often of a mother, Sue, who broke down in tears when she recalled having to send her son to school with just some mayonnaise on bread for lunch;
  • I think of Jess, now a young woman, who spent parts of her childhood living in a car, after her mum became ill and the family fell into poverty; and
  • I think about one of our tertiary students, Indiana, who was told by an employer that she’d amount to nothing because of her family background.


Educational outcomes


These experiences can be absolutely devastating for a young person – not only knocking their self-belief and confidence but having a flow-on effect to their educational achievement and future outcomes.


In fact, children from low-socioeconomic backgrounds are at risk of poor educational outcomes from their first year of school. This risk increases as they move through school, with significantly lower proportions of these young Australians completing Year 12 and moving into further study or work.

It’s what we call the cycle of disadvantage – and while it can be a devastating trap for a young person, it’s not inevitable.


This is a cycle that can be disrupted. I not only believe this, but I know this to be the case.

We simply can’t ignore the reality that too many children in this country will not achieve their potential, simply because of circumstances outside their control.



The Smith Family programs


At The Smith Family, we are very focused on breaking this cycle through long-term, targeted support for the young people referred to our programs. Our approach recognises the multiple influences on the wellbeing of children and young people.


These include:


  • their personal attributes
  • their family
  • their peers
  • their early learning places and schools, and finally
  • the community in which they live


These influences do not impact in the same way on all young people over their lives, nor do they act in isolation. Challenges in one area can be offset by additional supports in another.


And while these influences can place a child on a pathway or trajectory, it doesn’t have to be fixed. It can be influenced by the right support at the right time. We work across these multiple areas of influence on a child’s wellbeing, to maximise the likelihood of positive outcomes.


Our solution is to provide ongoing support for a child’s learning throughout their educational journey – from their early years right through to the end of their tertiary studies. The long-term engagement we build helps children attend and complete school, and go on to further study, training or employment.

Program impacts


When income is scarce or unstable, the short and long term implications of each financial decision made – no matter how small – can have a significant influence on a family’s circumstances.


That’s why programs such as Saver Plus and MoneyMinded are important tools The Smith Family offers to the young people and families we support.


Using MoneyMinded resources as a base, and with ANZ’s support, The Smith Family has developed a financial literacy course for students in the later years of high school.


The program provides 10 hours of financial literacy education to students in their schools. Successful completion allows them to gain a Certificate 1 in Financial Services.


These are programs that research confirms are making a difference – in both skills and behaviour. Importantly, they complement our long-term approach to helping the children and families on our Learning for Life program and others in the broader communities where we work.


The simple fact is poverty is a large, complex problem. If we truly want to tackle this problem, it requires a whole-of-community effort – from governments to businesses to organisations like ours, through to people on the ground in local communities and, of course, to young people themselves.


A true partnership approach is key. We know we cannot possibly have as big an impact working on our own. But partnerships, such as ANZ and The Smith Family, can make a very real difference. We can help young people to find a pathway out of poverty.


In communities like Wagga Wagga, it is about working together to come up with solutions that address a particular community need, and always with the best interests of children at heart.


Investing in young Australians is one of the greatest things we can do to build a positive future for all of us – not only putting young people themselves on a path to a better life but delivering long-term social and economic benefits for our nation.


Lisa O’Brien is Chief Executive Officer of The Smith Family. This article is an edited version of Lisa’s presentation to the ANZ Board in Wagga Wagga late last year.


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