The Commission and schools: now and in the future
08 Mar 2011
Below is Commissioner Megan Mitchell's address at the Australia and New Zealand Law Association's (ANZELA) Twilight Seminar on Tuesday 8 March, 2011.
This evening I’d like to talk to you about how we think about children and childhood, and how we can individually and collectively work to promote their welfare and wellbeing. It’s a goal I’m sure many of you here tonight would share with the Commission.
When I was a youngster I was constantly being told ‘children should be seen and not heard'. That was the doctrine of the day. But that hasn’t always been the case. Images and concepts of children and childhood have changed over time and will continue to evolve.
Past perceptions of childhood
In medieval times (broadly from the 11th century -16th century) children were represented as miniature adults - the idea of childhood did not exist.
In the later part of the middle-ages (1300 to 1453) children were more romantically conceptualised as innocents and physically separated from adults. They were playful and wore special costumes, portrayed in art with pets, or as naked or semi naked children, babies, angels and cupids.
During the Victorian era (19th-20th centuries) more recent technologies including movies, mass press, photography, and affordable cameras yet again changed the imagery of childhood.
Romantic views of children
Images of childhood had the capacity to be created by many social actors - including family, friends and those interested in promoting products using children as the medium.
The romantic view of childhood quickly grew into what some commentators describe as the ‘cult of the child’ with popular imagery displaying the desirable qualities of childhood – the happy and free child but protected and dependant.
These images however were not so evident in depicting children from low socio-economic backgrounds – who were generally seen as either trouble makers and scallywags or ‘waifs and strays’ who needed rescuing.
The images of childhood through the ages have continuing influence today. Some contemporary parents voice concern about perceived changes to childhood that signal a loss of innocence, freedom, and heightened risk.
Similarly societal concerns about children who do not conform to the dominant imagery remain with these groups of children frequently portrayed as problems or threats. We see this in the media all the time, for example in portrayals of hooded youths and recent images of young people out on town drinking.
Importantly, over time children have gone from being objects of research, to being subjects of research, to being considered autonomous social actors and agents in their own lives.
Children as their own agents
Sociologists and children's rights advocates agree that it is imperative to recognise that the interests and needs of children differ from those adults.
We now know that in order to understand the impact of systems, policies and legislation on their lives, children and young people's voices need to be heard. The development of the participation movement and participatory research mirrors the increasing visibility of the child's rights movement over time. This is reflected in the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CROC).
CCYP role (legislation)
Supporting the effective participation of children is one of the main roles of the Commission for Children and Young People, first set up by Government as a statutory agency in 1999 to be a focal point within government for promoting the safety and wellbeing of the children of NSW.
In promoting the wellbeing of children, the Commission acts as an independent advocate within government, so that:
- children’s issue, interests and safety are considered;
- children have a say in the decisions that affect them, and
- agencies coordinate their efforts around outcomes for children.
In doing this, the Commission:
- works with, and encourages government and non-government agencies to obtain the views of children;
- monitors the safety and well-being of children in the community;
- conducts research into issues affecting children’s lives (we can conduct special inquiries into these issues);
- makes recommendations about: legislation, policies, practices, and services affecting children;
- informs government and the community about issues affecting children, and
- educates organisations where children spend their time about how to keep children safe, and monitors these.
The Commission is supported in this work by a unique governance model that has it reporting to a joint parliamentary committee, thus ensuring it has bipartisan support.
Of course this work is not without challenges, as:
- children are diverse and don’t speak with one voice;
- Governments have to think about everybody in the community, not just children;
- it takes time to hear what children have to say and children like to say things in different ways;
- we are a small organisation with a wide brief.
In this context we know we need to target our efforts, and pick the key issues facing kids to work hardest on.
This is where partnerships with others such as yourselves can really help to shape the agenda of the day and deliver timely interventions that make a difference.
Our current priorities
In that vein I would like to outline a little of the Commission’s current agenda.
Some of the key priorities we are currently working on include:
- Implementing changes to the working with children check
- Producing a statistical report titled “A Picture of NSW Children”
leading a whole-of-government approach to implementing the recommendations from two Parliamentary Inquiries on:
- The middle years of childhood
- Children’s participation in the design and planning of the built environment
- Educating, supporting and monitoring child safety in organisations
One area that is of direct concern to your work involves changes to the Working With Children Check in NSW. Following a review of the Commission’s Act and the Working With Children Check, a number of changes to the check system are being considered. Many of the submissions to that review strongly supported a change to the current WWCC system. Employers and organisations that use volunteers indicated a preference for a portable check that an applicant takes with them from one job to another, similar to systems in place in most other jurisdictions. Employers would just have to check that the applicant has a current WWCC. Such a system would more efficient and fairer for both employers and employees.
While I can’t pre-empt the decision-making process by Government, it is anticipated that changes to the current system will be implemented sooner rather than later and incorporate this portability approach.
Children of NSW
Another exciting project for us is the Picture of NSW Children. This is a report about children’s wellbeing that is being produced in conjunction with the University of New South Wales' Social Policy Research Centre. It contains descriptive information and statistics that covers all areas of the lives of children in NSW. The report is not due for release till later this year. However, I can provide a bit of a sneak preview into some of the interesting statistics it contains.
Birth rate impact
The first issue of a kind of note for NSW from this data is that the state is currently experiencing a “baby-boomlet”. This increased birth-rate will mean there will be more children in NSW. That will shortly mean many more children attending school and more policy challenges for government and the community.
Children and time
Childhood is a considerable period of time in a person’s life. About a quarter of our lives is spent in childhood (using the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) definition of children (0-17 years).
In 2009, there were 3,097 schools across NSW with 1,112,169 full-time equivalent enrolments and 2,277 part time students. Just over 55 per cent were primary school students (55.6%) and 44.4 per cent were secondary school students.
Each child spends on average six hours a day five days a week in their school for up to 13 years. With more than a million children in NSW spending a large part of their lives at school this experience is pivotal to child welfare and wellbeing, and to their transition to adulthood.
Children’s experiences: Importance of schools to kids
The Commission has long recognised the important role that schools play in a child’s life.
Schools are where kids spend so much of their time and usually where many of their friends and social supports are located. Without good relationships with their teachers and peers, many kids lose their motivation to learn and their enjoyment of school. The quality of the learning environment has a direct link to students' academic achievement, resilience, healthy development and relationships. It is critical to understand children’s experience of school given this is where they spend such a significant amount of time.
In this context it is important to ensure all children have accessible and positive experiences of school.
Children's experiences: What makes kids feel good about schools
Liking school, school pressures and study problems are issues that children have repeatedly spoken with the Commission about, including our representatives from the Commission’s Young People’s Reference Group.
Children have also spoken with the Commission about what helps them to feel good at school and this includes:
- participating in school life and school decisions;
- supportive friendships;
- supportive teachers;
- opportunities to learn, succeed and be recognised;
- accept and support for who they are, and
- not being bullied.
Children’s Experiences: OECD indicators
I would like to briefly explore two indicators relating to the quality of school life, indicators which are reflected in OECD measure.
First, liking school and second, feeling pressured by school work. Students who do not like school are most likely to be the children who are failing academically. They are the ones who are at greatest risk of leaving school, and to be engaged in risky health behaviours.
In 2008, as part of the Longitudinal Survey of Australia’s Children (LSAC), parents of children (LSAC) aged 4-5 years and parents of children aged 8-9 years were asked about their children’s school experiences:
- A greater proportion of parents of children aged 8-9 years (89.1%) compared with parents of children aged 4-5 years (85.3%) reported that their children enjoyed attending school (and child care for the younger group).
- A smaller proportion of parents of male children reported that their children enjoyed attending school (82.6% for the 4-5 year old group and 86.9% for the 8-9 years old group) compared with parents of female children (88.6%; 91.5%).
- Nearly 80 per cent (77.5%) of parents said that their 4-5 year old child was almost always comfortable with other children at school or child care; and 83.3 per cent said their child almost always enjoyed games and play materials at school or child care.
A greater proportion of parents of female children reported this compared with parents of male children. The key take away messages that I glean from these numbers are that, while most kids are settling in well:
- between 10 and 15 per cent of children did not like school,
- around 20% of young children were not comfortable with other children,
- that liking with school increased with age, and
- that males were more inclined to dislike or be uncomfortable with school from an early age.
Feeling under pressure or stressed by school work can impact on children’s experience of school, and their enjoyment of it. As is the case with stress in other domains of a child’s life, high levels of school stress are associated with a range of poor health and well-being outcomes and at the extreme can be a factor in suicide.
In 2007 as part of the Longitudinal Survey of Australia’s Youth (LSAY), school students aged 16-17 years were asked about school pressures. What this study found was that:
- On the whole, over three-quarters of children aged 16-17 years reported in 2007 that they were able to deal with the pressures of school work and exams. Study stress was an exception, with one third (33.7%) of the children reporting that they ‘let study stress get on top of them’. There were substantial differences between males and females.
- A greater proportion of male students compared with female students felt they could deal with the pressures of school work and exams. For example 76.1 per cent of males said that they don’t let study stress get on top of them compared with 56.9 per cent of females. Just over 80 per cent (81.6%) of males said that they agreed that they don’t let a bad mark affect their confidence compared with 69.0 per cent of females.
This reflects the general finding that males report lower levels of distress compared with females. Again, what strikes me here is that at least 25 per cent of kids do not seem to be coping at school, and those who say they are coping might in fact just not care.
And from another angle, in 2008, the NSW School Students Health Behaviours Survey asked children aged 12-17 years in high school about study problems:
- Nearly 60 per cent (59.3%) reported that they had no problems studying at home or school that affected their performance in school tests and other work in the last 6 months. Twenty per cent had experienced ’about usual’ levels of study problems, 9.7 per cent ’worse than usual’ levels, 8.4 per cent ’quite bad’ levels, and 2.9 per cent experienced levels that were ’almost more than I could take’.
- A greater proportion of older students (16-17 years olds) reported levels that were ‘quite bad’ or ’almost more than I could take’ compared with younger students (7.2% and 2.3% compared with 11.5% and 4.5%.
- A smaller proportion of female students reported experiencing no problems studying at home or school that affected their school tests and other work performance compared with male students (44.0% compared with 62.9%). Indeed, a greater proportion of females compared with males reported experiencing problems that were ‘quite bad’ or ‘almost more than I could take’ (12.3% compared with 10.4% respectively.
Children have reported that other than family and friends, teachers are some of the most important people in their lives:
- For children who reported that they had study problems affecting their performance in school tests and other work, 43.1 per cent reported that they spoke to no one about it.
- When children spoke with someone it was most often a family member (38.6%) followed by friends (29.0%), and teachers or school counsellors (10.9%).
Given this range of data and some concerning indicators about stress experienced by kids, there seems to be a lot more to unpack in this area if we are to understand and effectively respond to children’s experiences with school stress.
Adults constantly make decisions on behalf of children, both in the public and private sphere. As academics, legal practitioners, educators and as parents and carers, this is something that you do on a day-to-day basis. Adult decision making on behalf of children in the public sphere is shaped and influenced by a number of things:
- personal values, beliefs, attitudes and experiences about childhood;
- current Knowledge;
- community need and expectation;
- Government and community priorities, and
- media images and commentary.
While all of these are legitimate and natural inputs to decision making, the Commission believes that children and young people have the capacity to participate in adult decision making and that this participation ultimately delivers better outcomes.
I’d like to give you a couple of examples about some of the unintended consequences of decision making where the issues for or the perspectives of children may not have been adequately considered at the outset.
Example 1: Driving
The first relates to the Impact of the Changes to the Driving Licence Scheme in NSW.
In 2007 NSW Government recognised that drivers aged 17-25 years were continuing to be over-represented in fatal vehicle-related crashes. Data compiled in 2005 by the NSW Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA) revealed that that young and primarily male drivers were involved in 26% of fatal crashes and 28% of all motor vehicle accidents. This is despite the fact that they constitute only 15% of all licence holders.
In 2007 the NSW Parliament Staysafe Committee commenced an Inquiry to look into this issue. Lack of driving experience was found to be a key contributing factor to young driver crash risk. Other risks included age and gender, circumstances such as fatigue, driver distraction, speeding and consumption of alcohol and drugs. The Staysafe Committee made several proposals to the driver licence scheme and called for submissions on its recommendations.
The Commission spoke with approximately 130 young people about what they thought of the proposals and how they would affect their lives. The young people were supportive of measures to decrease risks to young drivers. However, they voiced their concerns about challenges in obtaining a licence and barriers that would be created from the proposals.
Their concerns included:
- Difficulties in obtaining the proposed 100 hours of supervised driving in terms of affordability and finding time with a supervisor, particularly for low income families.
- Difficulties’ in obtaining paid work that required a driver’s license.
- Difficulties in meeting family commitments that required a driver’s license.
Following the inquiry the RTA announced changes to the learners and provisional license scheme including:
- a minimum requirement of 120 hours of practice for learner drivers;
- restrictions on night driving, and
- passenger and vehicle restrictions for provisional license holders.
The changes to the licensing system were made to address safety concerns. However, the unintended consequence was that it created an imbalance between young people’s safety and their ability to participate in their community – in education, employment, social and family activities. It also created greater disadvantage for already disadvantaged young people, and anecdotally led to falsification of driver practice hours records, and unlicensed driving.
Problems with the system have since been the subject of considerable public debate and the RTA has recently announced that further changes to the licensing scheme will commence in July 2011, including:
- A reduction in required log book hours from 120 to 100. One hour of professional driving instruction will count for three log book hours.
- Establishing a grant scheme to provide assistance to disadvantaged young learner drivers to get access tot three for once incentive.
- The very kinds of issues and solutions raised by the kids the Commission spoke to
Example 2: Middle Years
Another example of an emerging policy challenge in NSW and also nationally is the gap in policy and services for the middle years of childhood, those aged 9 to 14 years.
Recognition of the early years of childhood as a foundation for children’s future health and life prospects is now well established and reflected in Australia’s National Early Childhood Development Strategy - Investing in the Early Years.
This targets children 0-8 years.
Support for young people is demonstrated via the NSW Government’s Youth Action Plan which targets the needs and issues facing young people aged 12-24 years. Such initiatives recognise and support the needs of young people as they mature and transition into adulthood reflecting the recognition that the adolescent brain continues to develop past the age of 18.
However, an unintended consequence of policy and research agendas that have focused on particular age grouping is that a gap has opened up for the middle years of childhood. This means resources are already committed to programs targeted at the early or later years of childhood, at a time when children in the middle years appear to be facing greater risks and transitional challenges.
As noted earlier, the Commission is leading whole of government action in this area following an Inquiry conducted by the NSW Parliamentary Committee on Children and Young People into the needs and issues facing children aged 9-14 years. We look forward to working with ANZELA members and others over the next couple of years to further the development of the knowledge base about the middle years. Both in terms of children’s experience and development, as well as building educative and other system and service interventions to foster the wellbeing of middle years children.
Example 3 (one closer to home): WWCC
A third example of the unintended consequences of not fully considering the needs and interests of children relates to the Commission’s own Working With Children Check. Excluding known or likely offenders through the Check has been, and continues to be, an important component of working towards child safety in organisations where kids spend their time.
However, the Check has a number of limitations, including the unintended consequence where organisations can sometimes assume that simply having staff undertake a Check means that their child protection responsibilities have been met. For children to be harmed there is generally an interaction between an individual with a vulnerability to committing an offence and the environment they are operating in. When organisations rely solely on the WWCC, they are focussing on only the role of the individual and their record. Research suggests that <2% of offenders who had offended in a child-related organisation had joined for the express purpose of obtaining access to children.
The Commission’s ongoing compliance and education program for child safe organisations is therefore critical to continuing to promote managing environmental risk to children, rather than focusing solely on individuals and their records. The Commission has consistently advocated for - and provides training to support - the creation of work practices and organisations that are child-safe and child-friendly. A fundamental part of this is to encourage organisations to develop risk management frameworks, and provide participatory processes to engage children. This approach necessitates an analysis of risk and protective factors associated with harm to children. It takes into account not only the organisation’s policies and procedures, but also the underlying culture of the organisation.
Legislators and policy makers in education are operating in an increasing complex and challenging environment which reflects the diverse interests and expectations of our community. This is reflected in recent debates about things such as:
- the diversity of NSW children;
- the introduction of ethics classes for children;
- the increasing demand for schools to inter-face with vocational sectors;
- the introduction of reporting on school performance;
- an increasing focus on academic achievement in the absence of understanding children’s enjoyment and well-being at schools; and
- advances in technology and social media which present both positive educational opportunities as well as issues around privacy, inappropriate content and on-line behaviours.
I would like to suggest that children themselves can make positive contributions to addressing these kinds of issues. At the Commission, we have spent a lot of time talking to thousands of children as well as promoting child-friendly research and consultative practices. Kids’ views, opinions and feedback are an integral part of the Commission’s role to be a ‘voice’ for children and young people in NSW.
NSW was one of the first states to set up a Children’s Commission and the premise for its establishment remains unchanged. There is no other agency in NSW that advocates across the whole spectrum of children’s lives. Having an independent advocate within government helps provide a bridge between agencies who work with - and for kids - and offers a helicopter view of children’s lives. But the Commission can’t and doesn’t do it alone.
Through the cooperation and encouragement of schools and other learning institutions and associations we have been able to access a broad range of children and young people and incorporate their perspectives into our work for them.
I congratulate ANZELA and its membership for their interest in this area and encourage you to continue to work in partnership with the Commission to achieve the best outcomes for kids.