Give every child the chance to hit the heights with a great education

LAST week, thousands of young Australians received their year 12 results. All those late nights revising and cramming, the exams, and all the stress — finally it all paid off. It was finally over and they can finally enjoy the break they deserve. In our house, like so many others, it’s just about to start. Our son finishes year 10 next week and VCE begins next year.

Finishing high school is a big achievement — and it takes hard work. Some mornings, just getting out the door and to the school gate before the bell is a slog. Year 12 can bring a lot of pressure but for some teenagers, it’s even tougher.

As I type this, sitting on my desk is a photograph of a group of young women from Bendigo. They’ve graduated from high school this year, as well. But their story is a little different. They are all students — but some of them are parents, too. As well as putting themselves through school, these young mothers are raising children. Meeting them earlier this year was one of the most inspiring encounters of my life. These young women have dealt with the same challenges every year 12 student goes through — toiling over textbooks, the endless assessments, the setbacks and the stress. But they are also up at night to soothe a crying baby. Some live out of the family home, away from the support networks that other kids rely on without thinking. Some have grown up with family violence. Some are caring for their parents or their siblings, as well as studying. Many are the first in their family to finish high school. They’ve had to grow up much faster than their classmates.

These remarkable young women are students at Bendigo’s NETschool, which supports young people who are at risk of falling through the cracks of mainstream schooling. NETschool gives kids more flexibility and more individual support so they can succeed at school while also dealing with the challenges that life throws their way. The girls I met are smart, brave and ambitious. They are overcoming massive odds to give themselves and their babies a brighter future — with the help of a great school and its remarkable teachers. Meeting those girls and seeing them succeed made me so happy and proud. But I’m saddened by the reality that there are so many other kids who don’t have the chance to thrive.

In the land of the fair go, we like to tell ourselves that everyone has the same shot at success. But the truth is harsher. For a lot of kids, disadvantage begins at birth. According to ACOSS, 700,000 children in Australia are living below the poverty line. Youth unemployment is above 12 per cent. In the part of Melbourne where I live, it’s even higher. The chroniclers of Australia family life, the Australian Institute of Family Studies, tells us that more than 43,000 kids are living in out-of-home care and nearly 60,000 kids under 15 have some form of caring responsibility.

We know that a good education is the best predictor of a good job — especially these days, when so many new jobs require post-school qualifications. But too many kids are leaving school early — without any pathway into further training or work. A report by the Mitchell Institute found that as many as a quarter of Australian students are dropping out early. That’s a tragic waste of talent and potential.

My husband, federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, has been talking a lot about inequality this year. Inequality is when a small group of society controls most of the wealth, resources and opportunities that are available. It means people who aren’t as wealthy have fewer chances to build better lives for themselves and their children. Inequality is at a 75-year high in Australia and getting worse. When inequality is high, its biggest victims are children. That is because it’s much harder for people to climb out of disadvantage when the resources aren’t there to help them. 

The best defence against inequality is opportunity. When kids get the tools to succeed — like a great education — they can do anything. In the land of the fair go, it should always be your hard work, your intellect and your ambition that should determine your destiny — not your postcode or your family’s circumstances.

So, this week, let’s tip our hats to celebrate the kids who’ve made it to the end of high school and are starting the next exciting chapter in their lives.

And let’s commit to making sure every child, in every part of the country, has the chance to be the best they can be.

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