In the last two decades, governments have focused considerable attention on the early years, and appear to have neglected the years that follow.
The Australian Child Wellbeing Project used an online survey, designed with the input of young people themselves, to ask a sample of more than 5400 students in Years 4, 6 and 8 in 180 schools across every state, territory and school sector about their lives and wellbeing during this crucial period.
Young people’s wellbeing can be seen as comprising a range of objective circumstances and social relationships, and their perceptions about these circumstances and relationships. The final report of the study (available at edhq.co/1nN1JIJ) focused on a number of issues that emerged as important influences on young people’s wellbeing, including hunger and severe deprivation, missing school, and support networks that protect young people.
Few teachers will be surprised by the finding that almost one in five survey participants reported going to school or bed hungry at least sometimes because there was no food at home, or that one in 30 – almost one in every classroom – reported going hungry very often.
Few teachers will be surprised that about one in six participants reported being bullied at least weekly, or that one in 10 reported missing school about once a week or more. Indeed, few teachers will be surprised that all of these indicators are linked: young people who go hungry are far more likely to miss school than young people who never go hungry.
Young people who miss school frequently are far more likely to experience bullying than young people who seldom or never miss school. Young people who are bullied frequently are more likely than those who are not bullied to experience a range of psycho-somatic health complaints that are often seen as a sign of excessive stress (for example headaches, stomach-aches, sleeplessness, or feeling low, nervous, irritable, or dizzy).
These indicators of very low wellbeing are not randomly distributed across the population of young people, but are concentrated among those who are recognised as marginalised – in particular, young people with disability, young people who provide care for ill or disabled family, young people who live in materially disadvantaged families, and Indigenous young people. Indicators of school engagement are lower on average among these groups than among young people who are not marginalised.
What’s wrong and what can be done? Again, teachers are unlikely to be surprised by the proposed solutions. Young people who participated in our study emphasised the importance of family to them.
Immediate and extended family members, and sometimes other non-relatives, comprise important support networks for young people. Where support is compromised, or where support networks are very small, young people often experience the consequences.
Governments provide support to families through income support programs, universal health care and community services. Cutting back on these programs and services is unlikely to be without consequence for young people in the classroom, and especially for young people who are marginalised.
Principals and teachers can make a contribution towards reducing exclusion by ensuring that schools are able to reach out to families who have mainly experienced failure in the space of education.
Governments for their part need to recognise that schools alone cannot easily improve student outcomes if support for families beyond the school gates is compromised.
Policymakers know the importance of coordinated approaches across health, education and family services in delivering positive outcomes for young people. They need to set about delivering them.
As a start, they could perhaps ask young people themselves about what works for them.