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Standing Committee on Indigenous Affairs
Educational opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students

Lawler, Ms Louise, Executive Officer, Get Real Program


ACTING CHAIR: I now welcome the representative from the Get Real program to today's hearing. Thank you for being here today. Do you wish to make an opening comment before we have a bit of a yarn?

Ms Lawler : Yes. Thank you for inviting me. Very quickly, I have been working in Aboriginal health and education for 37 years—I cannot believe it is that long! It was a mistaken step sideways at some stage. I have run the Get Real program in Dubbo since we did some research when I worked for Charles Sturt University in 2004 that indicated that the kids at school had the will to participate in normal mainstream society, to work, to own a house, to pay a mortgage and all of those sorts of things. But a lot of them, and typically the sort of kids that I continue to work with, did not have anybody in their family or in their social surrounds that could help them with the way to get it. The name of the overall program that we designed out of that was called A Will and a Way. In Dubbo senior college it is called the Get Real program.

ACTING CHAIR: Do you want to explain please, for the purpose of the record, what it does?

Ms Lawler : It works with children that are seriously at risk of not finishing their education and who, if they do finish it on time, finish it with a lack of skills and, therefore, are doomed to lifelong unemployment or underemployment. Even though it is in high school, what we do is try to reconnect them with what school is for and how they can use that to get where their aspirations suggest they can go. We work with the child and their family as well. We take the family along with us, which is fairly essential to doing it.

ACTING CHAIR: Are these students special-needs students?

Ms Lawler : Not all of them. Some of them just—

Mr PERRETT: How do you find them?

Ms Lawler : They often find us.

Mr PERRETT: But how?

Ms Lawler : I have coordinators who work in the schools. At the moment we have just the three campuses of Dubbo College that we are working in. In the first iteration of the program we ran in Warren, Wellington and Nyngan as well as Dubbo. We put a coordinator in the school who becomes the go-to person for the kids. Sometimes teachers will say: 'This child is disruptive in class, or behaving badly, or not attending school, or not doing any of the work, or not submitting assignments, or showing up for exams, or their attitude is poor.' Most of the time it is lack of being there. They are not there enough.

Mr PERRETT: So the year coordinator, or someone at school—

Ms Lawler : It can be anyone. We work fairly closely with the deputy principals, who have their heads around most of the kids—

Mr PERRETT: They would be the academic deputy principals or the pastoral care—

Ms Lawler : Both, and then any teacher who is worried about a particular kid in their class, or one who should be in their class more often who is not in the class, or who is in the class and doing everything in their power to take the emphasis off what they are supposed to be learning so that they do not get shown up as being quite ignorant of what they should know. A lot of the behavioural problems are camouflage for: 'Don't ask me a question because I'm not going to know the answer.'

Mr COULTON: There is also a connection to industry. Can you explain how that works?

Ms Lawler : Yes, I can. Because many of these kids will not ever make it to university—at least, not straight out of school—the aim of the game is to not have them on unemployment benefits for life. That is the way that they want it. They wanted to be able to work, to earn their own money, to be able to buy a house, to have holidays—they wanted what the rest of Australia has. In order to do that they have to have a job. They know very well that you cannot get there through social security payments. With the kids we start working with what we do is form a relationship with them and get to know who they are and a lot of their aspirations and skills as well. We work with them to work out what sort of job they would like to work in or where they would find a comfortable fit as working adults that will start them on a trajectory that they can actually build on. Over the 10 years that the program has been running, we have had kids who have worked for three years at Fletcher's abattoirs just as labourers. They got a bit bored with that so they went off to TAFE and did something and then found themselves in universities studying for something else. So it actually gets them on a trajectory that shows them that they can do more than they thought. As they mature they actually start realising that they can do that. Many of the kids in school are just emotionally to immature to actually even know why they are at school. We work with a lot of kids who think that school is almost where you go before you go to juvenile detention or jail.

Mr COULTON: Maybe you could also touch on some of the issues you are finding. There was a hiatus in the course for a year or two. You were telling me recently that you believe that the circumstances have deteriorated somewhat.

Ms Lawler : Very much so. I actually left Dubbo in 2009 and came back in 2014, and the change in the kids' attitude to what was going on was really profound. When we first started the program in 2004, if you had said to any of the kids at the high school, 'How about we get you working at the abattoirs'—I have a partnership with Roger Fletcher out there who will employ any kid that we can take out as long as they are drug free. They have to screen for it, but we actually work with them on that, too. We get them drug free if they really want a job and many of them do it, surprisingly. They will stop smoking marijuana completely for three months in order to get a job. Roger is there and he will employ these kids as labourers. There is often no incentive like that pay packet.

Mr NEUMANN: You got sidetracked there—

Ms Lawler : I did.

Mr NEUMANN: You were saying you noticed the difference between 2009 and 2014.

Ms Lawler : When we first started doing that the kids would go, 'No, I'm not gonna do that. Only losers work out there.' But over the five years that we ran that program that attitude changed. In fact, Fletcher has changed his whole operation. He actually got rid of supervisors that had been there for a lot of years because they would not bend to the buddy system and buddy these kids up and really nurture them. So he changed the whole way the abattoirs worked to make it friendly to new employees. From 2009 to 2014, while I was away, that all fell apart again. Again we now have kids at school who say they are not going to work out there because that is where the losers work or where the Koreans work.

Mr NEUMANN: So it has gone backwards in five years.

Ms Lawler : It has gone backwards in those five years. It fell apart again.

ACTING CHAIR: What is the explanation for that?

Ms Lawler : Once my program left the school did not take any kids out there to be employed anymore. So we had that five-year gap of school kids not working out there. At one stage, I think there were close to 100 school kids working out there in the evening shifts during the week. They were loving it and talking other kids into going out and doing it.

ACTING CHAIR: How is the program funded?

Ms Lawler : Federal funding from the office of the Prime Minister.

ACTING CHAIR: So the federal funding stopped. What stopped to make it not happen?

Ms Lawler : What stopped it? The change of government.

Mr COULTON: Julia Gillard did not fund it.

Ms Lawler : 'I've never taken a dollar away from Aboriginal education'—that Julia Gillard.

Mr COULTON: It came back and it was driven. Originally a lot of the things that happened were with Simon Crean in the first stages, weren't they? And then Julia, as education minister, stopped it.

Ms Lawler : Yes. So then when the Liberal Party got in again Roger Fletcher created a bit more magic. I had retired at that stage and was living in Foster. He rang me and said, 'We need this. We need you to come back and get this back up again.' So we got the money for Dubbo for 2½ years, and that finishes at the end of this year.

ACTING CHAIR: Are you going to get funded again through the IAS?

Ms Lawler : I do not know yet.

Mr COULTON: Yes, it is through IAS. It was interesting that, when we talked to the schools about vocational education, I picked up a bit of a negative hint: 'We're aspiring for our students to be more than abattoir workers.' Maybe that is paraphrasing but that is what I picked up.

Ms Lawler : They are. They want them all to go to university. No-one is catering for that lower end.

Mr COULTON: I pointed out that the plant manager out there was a boy from the high school here.

Ms Lawler : The HR manager is. So is international sales manager. They all started—

Mr COULTON: They all started right after school.

Ms Lawler : In fact, Roger Fletcher will drive you along that road, and all those big multimillion-dollar industries on either side of the road all started at Fletcher's as labourers—every one of them. A lot of the kids that were in that first program are still living in town, and I am actually doing some research to get ethics to do Aboriginal kids at school, which, as you could imagine, is a nightmare. What I am doing is going back to work with the kids that were in the first part of the program and see where they have gone. We interviewed them all as they started, and I said, 'What do you want to be?' I had kids that wanted to be in jail, I had kids that wanted to break into houses for a living and I had kids that were going to be junkies. I had all sorts of things. They are all employed, they are all married, they have all got a couple of kids and they have all got a mortgage, except one, who did actually end up in jail. But he ended up in jail four months after they threw him out of school. So they have made it, and kids that I did not think would ever go to university have had three or four years at work and then gone to university, and two of them are back here as high school teachers—Aboriginal kids working as high school teachers in the local community. So they are excelling even what I thought they could make, many of them.

Mr COULTON: Tell them about the pledge. Do you still do the pledge?

Ms Lawler : Yes, we do the pledge. With year 10 students from the south, we have a pledge that they make that they need to use school in the next two years, so that, by the time they are 17, they will either be still at school, working towards full-time employment or full-time tertiary education at the end of it. They get very upset if they are asked to leave school before they have met that pledge, many of them. I have had kids ring me and say, 'That so-and-so principal is trying to get rid of me out of this school, but I signed that pledge board,' so I have to go to the office and plead the case for the kid and make them promise that they will get their assignments done and things. But many a child has bucked and gone, 'I'm not leaving school, because I signed that pledge.'

ACTING CHAIR: What numbers of students are you working with currently?

Ms Lawler : About 360. That changes and it continually grows, because what we find—

ACTING CHAIR: Male and female?

Ms Lawler : Male and female. As the students get to know what sorts of things our coordinators can do and that we are willing to come home and talk to the parents and work with parents and all that sort of thing, then the next minute it is, 'This is my friend Claire and she's got nowhere to sleep this weekend,' and those sorts of things. So with a lot of the stuff we do—in fact more and more now, this time around—we are dealing with crisis situations. And homelessness is a big one, because parents are missing or on substances or just living their lives—'I reared him till he was 14, and now he's kind of on his own,' but he is still at school. So finding accommodation for students that have no accommodation—I have got four people that work for me, and I think we have all had a kid or two overnight in the last 18 months, because there is nowhere for them to go.

Mr PERRETT: You touched on the fact that you were doing some research into kids that you have dealt with back from 2004. Do you have any data or ballpark figures, particularly with those that went to university? I think you said most are living locally but a few did go on to university.

Ms Lawler : A few did go to uni. I would say it would only be 10 per cent of kids that we worked with—they did not go straight to university but went later on—but the bulk of them are working, so upwards of 65 per cent are employed. And these were kids that stated themselves that they would not be, that they would not ever have a job; that they were just going to be—

Mr PERRETT: So you are just doing work now in terms of drilling down into what they are doing and how many ended up at university?

Ms Lawler : There are a couple of kids with their own businesses. One has a sandblasting business and another hires himself out to do fencing. Both those kids I look at now and think, 'I couldn't ever have dreamed that they would be able to run a business of their own. They just weren't motivated or keen.' But when you can find the thing that they like to do, they can find the rest of it. A lot of what we do is to help them find their way. We often accompany them to difficult meetings with principals and things so that they learn how to do those deals themselves—how to negotiate the world. A lot of it is parenting stuff, and some of the feedback I am getting from the research we are doing is that we taught them how to be better parents than their parents were. That was also nothing that we set out to do—it just sort of happened.

Mr PERRETT: The 360 kids—are they all Koori kids?

Ms Lawler : Probably 310 of them are. They bring along their little white friends and you can't say, 'No, we're not going to see you'!

ACTING CHAIR: What are the different challenges between young women and young men?

Ms Lawler : The boys are probably easier to work with. The girls have got a lot of barriers up and are tough little nuts to crack. They also would rather you did not tell them what to do. They think that the path that they are on and where they are heading is, 'Fine, thank you very much, and don't interfere too much.' They keep you at arm's length a bit longer. You just have to work harder with the girls. But once you get in there, it is often messier. A lot of them think that the way to have some sort of future life is to have a couple of kids and then they will have someone who will love them for who they are and the welfare payment that comes with that, and that is their aspiration.


Mr PERRETT: Very sad.

ACTING CHAIR: Are there any other questions? No? Louise, thank you.

Ms Lawler : A pleasure.

ACTING CHAIR: It was great to hear you.

Ms Lawler : It was good to be heard!

ACTING CHAIR: It was good for you to be here, so thank you.

Ms Lawler : No worries. I have met you before, too.


Ms Lawler : In Canberra, a couple of times. I used to work with the Australian Indigenous Doctors' Association and the Rural Health Student Network.

ACTING CHAIR: Yes, I still spend time with them. Before you go, I have to tell you something. I keep forgetting this. I will read this, because it is really important. Thank you for giving evidence today. You will be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence, to which you may suggest corrections, which may or may not be agreed to—it is just a proof; you get to have a look at it. You have not been asked to provide any more material. So thank you for being here. It was great.

Ms Lawler : That is all right. I did a fair bit of work to get this program up in 2004. There are a couple of research papers that underpinned what we do and how that works.

ACTING CHAIR: If you could send them to us—

Ms Lawler : If we can, between now and the end of this year, get the rest of that and how it has changed those kids, we will. The kids that I have talked to are all saying, 'You changed my life. The trajectory that I was on I didn't think would ever change.' They have not run into problems with their families with it, because they have done it themselves. There is one young man of whom the deputy principal said to me, 'Get that kid out of this school because he is never going to amount to anything.' He had been seriously depressed in years 8 and 9 and missed both those years at school. We got him into year 10. Halfway through year 11 I got him a job at Fletchers. He is still out there. He is now married with two children. Not only is he there but his six brothers and father are there, because he decided he was sick to death of being the only one earning enough money to pay the rent. So that kid single-handedly took a whole family to work with him, and their children will all work as a result of that.

ACTING CHAIR: That is a great story. Thank you.

Ms Lawler : He was one of those kids that was 'never going to amount to anything'.

ACTING CHAIR: Can you send us the research or the background documents to the program? That would be great.

Ms Lawler : Yes.