The Smith Family has facilitated digital inclusion for thousands of families over the last ten years, targeting both digital access and literacy. This includes access to digital devices (computers, laptops and tablets), software, and crucially, the internet. Digital literacy encompasses the ability to use technology and to have confidence in those abilities. So when we provide digital inclusion packages, we also provide essential technical support.
Before COVID-19, almost a quarter of the 50,000 young people we support on our flagship Learning for Life program did not have a device connected to the internet at home. And while digital support has always been important for our families, we have never seen demand spike in the way it has during this crisis. As a nation, we certainly have a long way to go to ensure digital inclusion for all.
For our older students, many have lost part-time work because of this crisis, which is an added blow. There’s a delightful, focused young woman who we’ve been supporting for some years; an Aboriginal student who is at university now. Jasmyn is 20 and studying medicine. She wants to become a doctor, supporting people in rural communities. But COVID-19 has taken a toll on her too. Jasmyn was working part-time to be able to afford her studies, and she too recently lost her job. Finding another job in this current climate as we all know, is an uphill battle.
Motivation and self-esteem can be such a challenge for our students. Having a job helps them to feel independent, so losing that part-time work can be a major set-back. We know that motivation – that desire and impetus to do well – is a big part of why young people do succeed. It’s why they keep going to school; why they finish school and go on to further study. If they lose that motivation, then they are less likely to succeed.
But in Jasmyn’s case, she knows The Smith Family will stay by her side, just as we have since she was 14 years old. We will help her to stay engaged in her educational journey by providing the support she needs to do that.
A recent study commissioned by the Australian Government2 shows the educational impact of COVID-19 is likely to be significantly greater for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, than their more advantaged peers. Without intervention, the impact of this pandemic on children's education could last a lifetime.
We will stand by Jasmyn and all Australian children we support, so they stay interested in learning, through the tough times ahead. Because there’s a very real danger that without that support, they’ll not only fall behind, they’ll disengage altogether.
To address the gaps these students experience, a collective effort is needed, similar to Australia’s response to the immediate challenge posed by the virus. As the threat of COVID-19 intensified, we witnessed unparalleled collaboration and coordination between different levels of government, and across the community and business sectors. Maintaining this collaboration should be the foundation of our national response to alleviate the impact on the education of students living in poverty.
Tackling digital disadvantage should be a key priority in our recovery from this pandemic. We can no longer allow students from disadvantaged backgrounds to fall behind in their learning because of the digital divide. It must no longer be considered adequate, that students only have access to devices and the internet at school, and not at home.
We don’t want our students to lose sight of their goals and dreams because of this crisis. It’s so important to support their aspirations and to make sure what’s happening now doesn’t impact their longer-term futures. They’ve all got such great potential.
While there is a lot of work to be done, I am buoyed by the strength and resilience of the families we support. They are deeply invested in their children’s futures, and despite all the challenges they are facing, they are resolutely determined to ensure their children’s education does not suffer.
I am also overwhelmed by the generosity of ANZ in its support for these young people in need. ANZ has contributed significant funds to respond to the needs of our students and families – through the development of our online portal and to help us further digitise our out-of-school programs. Particularly those suited to online learning, with a focus on financial wellbeing and work-readiness for young people.
Despite the challenges and uncertainties ahead, it is so heartening to see this ongoing support, which enables us to continue helping children in need, not just through this difficult time, but into the future as well.
For more information, visit www.thesmithfamily.com.au
1 Poverty in Australia, 2020, ACOSS/UNSW Report. 2 Government (CIRES & Mitchell Institute 2020 Impact of learning from home on educational outcomes of disadvantaged children