School of life

Image: Professor Rosemary Johnston-1

UTS's Australian Centre for Child and Youth: Culture and Wellbeing is helping to provide disadvantaged students with a new perspective, expanding their vision of what they can achieve. Mark Abernethy speaks to the Centre's Director Professor Rosemary Johnston about the key programs, the support behind them and their impact on students.

There are many school student programs in Australia and they often tread a line between political window-dressing and bureaucratic imperative. But when you delve into the suite of programs developed and run by the UTS Australian Centre for Child and Youth: Culture and Wellbeing (ACCY), you find a practical and personalised approach to helping young people widen the horizons of their thinking and expand options for their futures.

The force behind the Centre, Professor Rosemary Johnston, brings as much a personal concern for real life impact as she does a drive for academic research. The mother of five and one-time English and History teacher says her experience has shown that too many young people are made vulnerable by circumstances – demographic, cultural, geographic, social – which negatively affect attitudes to school.

"Some children have only a narrow vision of what they can achieve and some even have from too young an age an innate sense of failure," says Johnston, Founding Director of ACCY. "We show them that attending school and continuing with education at university or TAFE opens up possibilities and new freedoms in making choices."

The current suite of programs has grown from a Federally-funded project, New Ways of Doing School, where the team worked with remote Indigenous communities originally to explore ways of improving school attendance.

"We quickly discovered that school disengagement is not simply an educational problem," says Johnston. "In remote regions at least, it relates to health issues such as Otitis Media (inflammation of the middle ear), housing, parenting practices, employment opportunities, political decisions, relationships with services, and other social challenges.

"The programs that evolved from New Ways take a cross-disciplinary and cross-sectoral approach and have a strong community focus. A cell project, Literate Australia, looks at new ways of thinking about literacy for children from Indigenous and other cultural heritages."

Support from business

The How Big Are Your Dreams? project is a partnership with Gilbert+Tobin Law (which initiated and generously fund the project), Tranby Aboriginal College, and UTS, and is designed for year nine and ten Indigenous students. It particularly focuses on positive celebrations of Indigenous identity. It has now evolved from one year into two, has grown to reach beyond Greater Sydney to the South Coast, and is supported by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) and UTS.

The first year concentrates on exposure to new experiences – such as a Sydney Harbour tour of Aboriginal heritage sites on the Tribal Warrior – while the second year supports students as they develop a project of their own choice, promoting awareness of skills, confidence and perseverance.

"Students can feel they can't change," says Johnston. "But if you give them the chance to start a new story about who they are and what they can do, it opens up a whole new vision, a whole new world of ideas."

Johnston emphasises the role that the business community plays in these projects. Sky High! Lifting Up Aussie Kids, which targets years seven and eight children, has been made possible by generous donations from IMC Financial Markets and Assets Management, which is headquartered in Amsterdam.

Providing new opportunities

Image: Professor Rosemary Johnston-2

Sky High! is an innovative Australian adaptation of a program IMC run in the Netherlands. It targets children who are disadvantaged but again who are identified as having the potential to finish secondary school and continue their education. It has the support of the Department of Education and Communities and connects teachers and students in experiences including behind-the-scenes visits to the Opera House, the zoo, CSIRO and Monkey Baa Theatre.

"Some of the young people in Sky High! may be really disengaged," says Johnston, "while others want to achieve but are struggling against circumstances. We can have bullies and bullied in the same group."She says the Sky High! team are focused on emancipating student's minds from often deeply imposed limitations on ambitions and achievement.

"We took Sky High! to the Opera House to let them see a range of different occupations. The Opera House made it possible for the heads of catering and security to talk with the students about their own journeys through school and into the positions they now hold. We also showed them the gamut of jobs that make the Opera House work – not only performers but lighting, sound, front-of-house, marketing, costume making and so on."

The latest addition to the suite is Sharing Creative Cultures, for years five and six in primary schools with high multicultural populations. The team works with children to gather cultural stories, identify similarities of plot, character and/or theme, and develop scripts for creative productions. The project addresses curriculum outcomes, but most importantly, seeks to highlight living cultural meeting points.

All these projects are made possible by external funding. And they are all growing – Sky High! has already developed into Sky High! Metro and Sky High! Regional, thanks to UTS and DEEWR.

"Giving begets giving," Johnston says. "People are encouraged when they see what can be done."

She stresses that it is both corporate sponsorship and her committed teams that make these projects work so well.

And do they work? Johnston says there is an anecdotal and measurable success in terms of improved attendance, social conduct and participation in school life. However, the current initiatives are also being tracked into a longer study exploring disengagement and why programs such as these – at a pivotal stage in student lives – can positively influence their trajectory.

"Schools are doing great work, but something special happens when students experiencing difficulty are lifted out of their everyday into a different place. We had an Archibald finalist draw portraits with the Sky High! children for one event – nothing really that wouldn't have happened at school. But he was an artist – a practitioner – and this was a whole day, created for them, in a non-school setting. The accompanying teachers told us the children sketched all the way home on the train.

Words: Mark Abernethy
Images: Anthony Geernaert