Children in out-of-home care are less likely to finish school. Victoria is launching an inquiry to understand why

·4 min read

Jane* was about to start VCE at a new high school when she was removed from home by Victorian child welfare authorities. She planned to spend the night at a friend’s place with her twin sister, and ended up staying four months.

Jane says she was fortunate. Although she had to summon up the courage to tell her new school about the situation, once she did they provided her with valuable support in terms of her broader wellbeing, but also with practical matters such as how to get a birth certificate.

“I was so lucky, because school remained that one safe place, and it was able to stay that way,” she said.

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But Victoria’s commissioner for children and young people, Liana Buchanan, fears Jane could be an outlier, and is launching a systemic inquiry into the schooling experience of those in out-of-home care.

As pressures on the education system continue, Buchanan says the more vulnerable students will suffer the most.

Even before the pandemic, those in care were less likely to finish school than those who weren’t. Those figures have become even more dire since 2020, Buchanan says, citing department data she is not authorised to share publicly.

As the Andrews government comes to the end of its current term, and with the education inquiry to be the fourth investigation Buchanan’s team has done into system-wide failures in the child welfare system, she admits she is “losing patience”.

“Schools are stretched at the moment just to get enough teachers to cover classes …but when we’re talking about stretched systems, that’s an explanation, not an excuse,” she said.

“Government has made some investment … but what we’ve actually seen in our successive inquiries, and I continue to see, is that it’s a system or several systems that requires fundamental change.

“I’m seeing what’s happening for children, and how children are being entirely let down, and there comes a point where I don’t have a lot of patience.”

Buchanan says the consequences of schools being unable to properly respond to the challenges faced by children in out-of-home care did not end with poor educational outcomes.

She said that in the about 250 investigations she had done into the deaths of children known to the child welfare system, a pattern often emerged of behaviour worsening in late primary school or early secondary school, before the young person left the education system.

The genesis for the latest inquiry was the repeated references made by young people to challenges they were facing with their schooling during their involvement in previous commission inquiries.

Buchanan said those children spoke about schools that made them feel as if they were too much trouble, or who punished them harshly when they stepped out of line, causing them to disengage. They also spoke of a stigma and bullying connected to living in out-of-home care.

While the education department and department of fairness and families has an agreement in place which governs how they are supposed to deal with children such as this, Buchanan said it did not appear the effectiveness of this was being monitored.

A state government spokesperson said $2.8bn had been invested in the child protection system in the past three state budgets.

“There’s nothing more important than the safety and wellbeing of children – that’s why we are taking significant steps to improve the child and family services system in response to recommendations made by the commission.

“Our hardworking teachers and support staff also do an incredible job to make sure every student gets the help and support they need at school. We’ll continue to back them with the resources they need to support vulnerable and at-risk children.”

While most students consider the final years of high school to be stressful, Jane had to navigate it while her home life unravelled, and as she tried to come to terms with being a young person in care. What, for example, is the best way to tell prospective friends at your new school that their parents will have to have police checks before she can visit their house?

Jane completed VCE in 2019, and is now a law and global studies student at university, and is about to embark on a semester on exchange in Europe.

“The system itself has to change, because yes, you may have that lucky few who have a good relationship with school … [but] it’s been quite shocking seeing how drastically different most people’s experience was to mine,” Jane said.

*Name has been changed