For some young people, finishing school in a global pandemic was made more difficult by the compounding effects of disadvantage. By Rick Morton.

‘I'm not going to sugar-coat it': meet 2021's most resilient school leavers

Maddie found it challenging when switching from in-person school to online in her final year.
Maddie found it challenging when switching from in-person school to online in her final year.
Credit: The Smith Family

Sometimes it feels as though everything happens at once. In year 12, as Sara worked to finish high school during the second year of a grinding pandemic, allied forces withdrew from Afghanistan and, in the vacuum they left, eased the path for the return of the Taliban. Sara was born in Afghanistan and arrived in Australia in 2010 at the age of seven, speaking no English.

“It was overwhelming and stressful, especially during Covid and finishing school,” says Sara, who lives in Melbourne’s south-east with her family.

“To be honest, it was challenging. It affected not only my mental health but my friends who are also Afghan and even the non-Afghans. But we just had to pull through because it was the last year and everyone wanted to do their best.”

At this scale, no other graduating class in a century has had to endure so much for so long. For students such as Sara, supported by the Australian education charity for disadvantaged kids, The Smith Family, these obstacles have come on top of poverty or disengagement that has been allowed to bloom for so long.

For Western Sydney twins Layne and Bayler, the Covid-19 lockdown was particularly strict compared with wealthier suburbs in Sydney. Even so, Layne will become the first person in his immediate family to go to university next year, after gaining early entry to Western Sydney University.

“When the helicopters come around it gets a bit annoying,” he says. “It’s been hard but also easy, if that makes sense? It is what it is.”

The twins are the eldest children in their family, raised by their single mother, and stuck together during the pandemic to help each other and their younger siblings with maths and English homework.

“We didn’t really tell that many people that we were getting any help, but the amount of stuff they have done for us, like just getting clothes that fit because we’re big kids,” Layne says of the charity. “At the moment we’re a size 14 or 15 shoe, the shirts for school are $25 and we keep growing.”

There is a misconception in some circles that public school is entirely free. While there are no school fees in the strict sense, there are book and stationery costs, uniforms, excursions and other incidentals, for which families receive little or no support.

Each obstacle has a multiplier effect and for any child transitioning from school to the workforce or higher education the accumulation of disadvantage can weigh heavily.

Bayler, 18, wants to be a mechanic but in the meantime is dealing with a birth defect that results in his kneecap, or patella, popping out during minor exercise. The tendon is in the wrong place.

“With previous injuries to my knee I’ve had terms off school and needed extra support, which was easier to get when things were face to face,” Bayler says. “In our last term we were put into lockdown, it was the revision term before the HSC and everything went online and the teachers were struggling trying to keep up with the work.”

For Maddie, who lives south of Brisbane, the challenges of finishing school in a pandemic are clear but she nevertheless exudes optimism.

“I’m not going to sugar-coat it and say it was the perfect year 12 life. It had its obstacles that we had to learn to overcome or just be resilient,” she says.

“You know, things like lockdown would happen at the snap of a finger and suddenly we have to learn how to do things that teachers would normally show us themselves, especially with maths, which I am terrible at.”

It is no small thing to be thrown into upheaval, especially when your own circumstances – like all the young people in this story – are filled with the friction of daily existence.

“In a workplace or a school place, your brain is structured to be in that learning or working mindset, but when I am at home it makes me feel more inclined to relax,” Maddie says. “You have to force yourself to remember, ‘No, you are in school time now; you actually have to do some schoolwork.’ ”

Maddie is the youngest child in her family and was the only one at home this year. She has been with The Smith Family support program Learning for Life since year 8.

“It has been honestly amazing. At the start a lot of it was financial help, but we didn’t realise the added things that came with it, like little workshops over the holidays,” she says.

“It made a massive difference. Mum was a single mum at that point, but it was also the confidence I got from the workshops, it made me come out of this little shell I was in.”

One of the hallmarks of disadvantage – and it comes in so many different stripes – is the way it can make a world small. For Jaye, in Rockingham, 47 kilometres south-west of Perth, his horizons have been expanded and he now stands on the precipice of something bigger. He has been receiving support from The Smith Family since year 1.

“This year is the end of a little bit of a phase for me, where I am going to move from this suburb and the high school on its own, knowing the paths. I’ll probably know the paths in a different suburb, where I might be living or going often, like with my university travels,” he says.

“My dad told me a couple of times, and I didn’t really understand him until recently, he said, ‘When we are confident, we have a plan, and we are not going to continue the poverty cycle. No one is going to guess that you’ve come from this. You’ve come from the ground basically.’ ”

By his own account, Jaye lives in a tiny and rundown public housing home in a suburb marked by high rates of poverty. He is glad that Covid-19 had little interruption to his schooling in Western Australia, and he finished the year as school captain. Jaye, who is still 17, won multiple awards for academic achievement and community spirit. He is wise beyond his years.

“I don’t want to get emotional but, like, I don’t invite friends over to the house because it’s a mess, but that’s where I live. I’ve come out of the rags, I’ve worked hard and with the help of The Smith Family and my brothers and my family and although we don’t get along sometimes because of how crammed in [we are], we are proud of each other.

“Sometimes people don’t understand it and people shy away but it means a lot.”

Last year, in a real-time economic experiment, the federal government effectively doubled the unemployment benefit and lifted other welfare measures in a stimulus-linked move that proved people can be lifted out of poverty. It was unwound almost as swiftly as it began, thrusting hundreds of thousands back into crisis. In the absence of an effective safety net, charities such as The Smith Family are left to fill the gaps.

Students such as Jaye, Sara, Layne, Bayler and Maddie are proof of what even a modest investment can do for people in the most challenging two-year period for any school leavers in modern history.

The future is hard to predict, of course, but it is a little easier to imagine for these kids. Jaye, for example, wants to be a marine biologist.

“Even though I’m seasick, so that doesn’t help,” he says. “I suppose I’ll get used to it.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 11, 2021 as "School’s out".

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