For everyone Let them learn: inquiry into education for children in out-of-home care

In November 2023, the Commission for Children and Young People tabled their inquiry, Let us learn, in the Victorian parliament. The systemic inquiry looked at the educational engagement and outcomes for children and young people in out-of-home care, and the findings are sobering.

In every measurable education outcome, students in out-of-home care are worse off than their peers. They are more likely to be suspended or expelled from school. They are less likely to complete Year 12. They are less likely to participate in NAPLAN testing, and generally achieve poorer results when they do. They are also more likely to experience school disengagement, and their attendance rates are lower.

For Aboriginal children and young people in out-of-home care, the educational outcomes are even lower, with many detailing exhausting experiences of racism in their schools. For students living in residential care units, their educational outcomes are particularly dire.

What this inquiry found is that young people in out-of-home care want to learn.

What this inquiry also found, through interviews and surveys, is that these young people in out-of-home care want things to be different. They want to go to school. They want to learn. They want to achieve better results, feel safer, make friends, forge ties and be treated equally. And for that to happen, things must change. 

Of course, many of these changes involve increased funding, changes to the way Child Protection interacts with education providers, and improvements in the running of residential care units. For a student in out-of-home care to thrive, they need consistency of Child Protection workers, carers providing a safe home environment, and financial support. 

But many of the required changes fall within the remit of the Department of Education – achievable at a school level – including a better understanding among teachers and educators about the trauma and hardships these students often experience. It is not uncommon for students in out-of-home care to move placements regularly, making regular school attendance nearly impossible – and yet, numerous students interviewed said that nobody understands how challenging it is for them just to turn up. 

Add in the extra pressures of insecure housing, mental health issues, family violence, and insecure living conditions, and it is little wonder that finishing homework is a low priority. As one student said, “Kids in care have gone through hell; learning is not going to be their top priority… Surviving is going to be the kid’s priority.”

However, school is an important place for these students to heal, belong, and learn, and they deserve the same opportunities that other students have. So how can schools play their part in providing this?

Whole-school approaches to trauma and trauma-informed care training for educators are two of the report’s key recommendations. While there has been a greater focus on social and emotional wellbeing in education settings recently, the inquiry noted an overwhelming gap in consistent use of trauma-informed training in classrooms and with students in care. Students with a history of trauma need strong wellbeing programs, trauma-informed behavioural management plans, help in regulating their emotions, and connections with educators. 

Another recommendation is training for school leadership teams to increase their understanding of out-of-home care. The importance of this understanding, combined with an enhanced focus on trauma-informed care, was demonstrated by the positive experiences some students had with teachers who worked hard to engage them and with principals who lobbied for them to stay at the school in which they had settled. 

Other students spoke about the importance of teachers understanding them as people and going out of their way to find out what was happening for them beyond the classroom. Students also said it mattered if teachers had high expectations for their learning. 

Racism both from peers and teachers was identified by a number of students interviewed, and it is recommended that schools support First Nations children to report instances of racism and to respond appropriately. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children also need a connection to culture, Country and language – something that can be integrated at a school level. 

The inquiry makes 47 recommendations to improve the educational outcomes for children and young people in out-of-home care. Some of these can be implemented simply through better understanding, listening, and connecting with all students, regardless of their background. Others require training and commitment from school leadership to better understand students in the out-of-home care system. It is also critical that the department supports schools to improve conditions for these students so that they have a fairer chance to learn.

Read the Let us learn report in full.

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