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Education, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee
Allowance payment system
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Education, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee
Gallacher, Sen Alex
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Education, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee
(Senate-Tuesday, 28 August 2012)
CHAIR (Senator Back)
- Senator McKENZIE
Content WindowEducation, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee - 28/08/2012 - Allowance payment system
CUMMINGS, Mr Andrew, Executive Director, Australian Youth Affairs Coalition
HENRY, Ms Polly, Board Member/Youth Advocate, Australian Youth Affairs Coalition
CHAIR: Welcome. Thank you for your submission, which we have as No. 56. Do you wish to make any alterations or amendments to the submission?
Mr Cummings : No, we do not.
CHAIR: I invite you to make a brief opening statement, after which we will go to questions.
Mr Cummings : Thank you very much for the invitation to present some evidence today. We appreciate the opportunity. I will very briefly give some background information. The Australian Youth Affairs Coalition is a national body that seeks to both provide a voice to young people, aged 12 to 25, and also represent the youth support sector—the wide range of organisations that exist to support young people through that life period.
One piece of work that we are doing at the moment is research looking at the impact of living on benefits for young people in that age group. At the moment we are interviewing around 30 young people from across the country from a wide range of backgrounds to collect their stories and hear from them about the impact that living on what we consider to be an inadequate amount of money has on their life and the types of life choices that they are having to make in order to do so. That research will not be ready in the time that this Senate inquiry is happening, but we certainly look forward to providing that as further input to the case that we are putting today.
Broadly speaking, we support the ACOSS submission and the range of other submissions that you have received from the welfare organisations—the National Welfare Rights Network and so on. But today what we really want to focus on is the impact that living on what we believe to be an inadequate amount of income has on young people as a distinct and particular group. We believe there are particular things that happen during that life period up to the age of 25 and that there are particular impacts that living on an inadequate amount of money has on young people. So that is what we really want to highlight today.
Polly is here as a young person and a young advocate, and she will talk a bit more about some of the examples from people that she is in daily contact with and through her contact as a young person. I will just set the scene around some of the key things that we are noticing and hearing from young people.
One of the key things that we hear from young people is that, in living on youth allowance and Newstart allowance, one of the biggest impacts is the socialisation that comes with not being able to afford to socialise and to go to events that their peers might be going to. Whilst we recognise that nobody would expect that the benefits system would allow young people or anybody else a luxurious life, we do believe that in that particular stage of development, particularly in the 16 to 25 age group, young people are at a critical time of developing a range of social and emotional skills, and a critical part is having regular contact with your peers, which helps to develop confidence, self-esteem and a whole lot of other things.
One of the things that we regularly hear from young people is that is one of the first things to go when they are living on youth allowance or Newstart allowance. For students, that is probably not such a big issue, because obviously they are getting regular contact with their peers through their study.
But, particularly for young people who are unemployed—we know that there are often pockets of young people in areas that are much more represented by higher rates of unemployment, and those tend to be on the peripheries of our cities and in rural and regional areas—those young people often feel a particular burden of isolation, of not being able to take part in social activities. That is compounded by higher public transport costs and, often, difficulty in accessing public transport. Those things really do have an impact on young people in terms of developing those skills. We believe that not only are those skills important as personal development but they are also critical in terms of developing skills for employment—being able to gain employment and to stay in employment. We hear from employers regularly that one of the key concerns is young people having the types of core skills, life skills, that they need in order to be valued employees—not only to get a job but to keep a job and to be a valued employee.
Another aspect of not having that social contact and being isolated is the effect on mental health. We hear a lot from young people that that experience exacerbates things like anxiety and depression. One of the cases that we would make for increasing the rate of the benefits and allowances is that there needs to be some sort of cost-benefit analysis about increasing the income, because there would be young people who are currently relying on mental health services or who down the track may become reliant on mental health services and other support services, which often obviously has a significant cost to the community. If we are able to invest earlier and help to avoid those experiences of anxiety and depression and other mental health problems, that will be a saving to the community down the track.
Another thing we hear from young people a lot is the choices that they are having to make around the food that they eat and their diet. I was talking to one young woman yesterday who is a full-time student of 20. She has been homeless since she was 14 and has lived in and out of refuges. She is now 20 and doing a law degree and has done an amazing job at turning her life around. She is really keen to not be part of that cycle of staying on benefits and so on. She talked about how she budgets $30 a week for her food. The impact of that is that she finds it very, very difficult to afford fresh fruit and vegetables or meat. She tends to live on things like two-minute noodles. For short periods of time, that is not necessarily going to have a negative impact, but we are particularly concerned about what effect that might have for extended periods of time. Again, I think we need to be thinking about the health impact and the cost on the health system down the track, when large groups of people in the community are not able to afford the healthy foods that they need and other things like access to exercise and so on that all cost money.
CHAIR: We will just hold it there and go to some questions. I am sure that the other points you have to make will come out. Across the band of recipients of Newstart—there may be exceptions—as a group, the 16- to 25-year-olds would probably be regarded as those who are most mobile, would they not? They are less likely to have family responsibilities. They are less likely to have a mortgage et cetera. Do you have a view on the ease and speed with which that age cohort, as a group, should be encouraged to be able to move to where there are areas of employment? It is more difficult, we know, for a middle-aged person who has lost their job and they have got responsibilities as a carer et cetera. But the age group that you represent, I would have thought—from my own experience and that of plenty of others—is relatively highly mobile to move towards employment.
Mr Cummings : My belief is that there should be incentives and encouragement for young people to be able to move to take up jobs where they exist—for example, help with costs of moving and other incentives. What I would be very fearful of is making it a requirement—a threat that young people would lose access to unemployment benefits, for example, if they were not willing to take up a job anywhere in the country. It links to some of those things I have talked to about, like the impact on mental health of greater isolation.
Often for these young people—those who do have family and friends—those are particularly important times for having that kind of social support, and, if young people are forced to move away to take up employment, they lose the support of family and friends. What we often see—and I think that this is a concern in, for example, some of the fly-in fly-out roles in the mining industry and so on—that you end up with people who are living in isolated areas where they end up drinking a lot. There is not much to do with their free time, so they rely on alcohol and drugs and so on. We really need to look at the possible impact of those things and to make sure that we are addressing all of those things if we are encouraging young people to be mobile.
CHAIR: Yesterday in evidence some Salvation Army representatives were explaining to us a pilot program they have on Hamilton Island with regard to tourism. In my state I have been told by most farmers that the New Zealanders who used to work to put crops in are now all working on the mines and that, if it was not for backpackers—who are usually people with no skills at all when they turn up and whose English language is not too good—they would be stuck. Hospitality, agriculture and tourism in rural and regional areas of Australia might be seasonal but not permanent. Overwhelmingly the labour force is backpackers, who are never going to come back. One thing about seasonal labour is that, if you are good and you enjoy it and your employer enjoys you, it helps to fill that gap. Are this age cohort you represent not the ones who could replace backpackers for those periods of time and get some of this engagement you speak of and have the dignity of work and income even if, during other times, they do return to their homes?
Mr Cummings : I think it is certainly something we can explore. For example, there is a growing culture of young people having a gap year between finishing school and going into higher education or going on to more serious employment, so I think that there is certainly something we could explore around creating a culture where part of that experience might be around doing that kind of agricultural work and that kind of thing. Polly might want to comment, because, as a young person, that is something which is probably closer to her experience.
Ms Henry : I agree with what Andrew said about having to be really wary of the isolation and the impacts of isolation on a young person in trying to incentivise the fly-in fly-out work or work that is away from their home. I moved from Darwin to come to Canberra to study last year, and, despite having my grandparents and my auntie in Canberra and a good support network, there was still—even for me, who already had friends in Canberra—that sense of isolation. I think that that would be compounded in young people who are just moving somewhere for the sole purpose of work. I have met young people who have not gone into higher education and have gone straight into work, and they have all said to me that the one big difficulty is finding that new network and getting dumped into a completely new environment and feeling that isolation, especially when they come from a high school setting where they were with their friends five days a week and then they ended up completely removed from the routine and the familiarity and from those parental and friendship networks to a place where they are just there to work and are just seen as a worker. I think that that does have a big impact, and I do think incentives might be something to explore. But, like Andrew said, it should not be a condition.
Senator GALLACHER: One of the questions I have asked all the people making submissions is about the $31. It may not be relevant to the youth allowance, but it is certainly relevant to Newstart. Do you have a view on the amount that people can earn prior to having a tapering of their benefits? Should that be raised? Is it okay?
Mr Cummings : Polly and I were saying before we came in that it does impact on her as a student, and I certainly think that there should be more flexibility, particularly for young unemployed people. I think that the flexibility is probably more there for students because there is this idea that the youth allowance for students is a kind of co-investment where young people are expected to be able to support themselves through other work and so on. We do have concerns about the pressure it puts on young people to be studying as well as working.
Polly was talking about a study at ANU that was released last week, where a third of students were saying that they are having to work 30 hours a week or more in paid employment in order to be able to afford to study. That, anyone would agree, is a huge amount of time; it is almost a full-time paid work load while also doing full-time university study. If our aspiration as a country is to develop a knowledge economy that is competitive with the rest of the world, then we need to be investing in young people as the future of that. That we are asking young people to divide their attention between study and work to such a large extent I think is problematic.
Our other concern is that the youth allowance for students is at a lower rate than the unemployed benefit. Particularly for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, it acts as a real disincentive to study. We constantly hear from young people, particularly from lower socio-economic backgrounds, that they often delay going to study because of that gap and the need to have saved some money. We also often hear that that delay inevitably leads to them not going on to higher education. Again, it is exacerbating the gap between the haves and the have nots and it is not encouraging young people from those backgrounds to raise their aspirations and to have a better life than previous generations.
Ms Henry : It is those things that really give young people mixed messages. On the one hand, we are expected to be able to support ourselves, be independent and leave the house to go and study—and a lot of people move away from home to study—and, on the other hand, we are told that we cannot work and we cannot support ourselves. One of the biggest problems there is that it is a real disincentive (1) to start working and (2) to get that habit of financial responsibility when you are paid so little or when you can work so little, and when you do not have much support from the government. There is very little money that you can save.
Because of my background I am very big on saving, and coming from full-time work during my gap year to university, where I cannot save that money, is a real worry for me. I am very lucky that I do have savings, but what if those unexpected things come up? I have friends who have only managed to save about $300 over a three-month period. If they have a medical crisis or if they have to go to the dentist, that $300 is gone straight away. If they have to move further out of the city or further away from university to save money on rent, almost all of that money then gets eaten up in transport costs or having to buy a car and paying for parking and things like that. We are being given a real mixed message. On the one hand we are being told, 'Yes, it is good, you should try to support yourself', but on the other hand that, 'You can't support yourself with work, because we will take away the support that we are giving you'. I think it is a really unhealthy message to be giving young people.
Young people should be getting more support from the government. I went out and looked for work because I wanted to work and develop those skills, but without rent assistance I still would not be earning enough and without youth allowance I would not be earning enough to live what most people would call a comfortable lifestyle. Those disincentives to work are one of the largest problems that I see with the current system.
Senator GALLACHER: The retail sector is probably one of the largest employers of casual and part-time workers. Almost anybody who goes to university has spent some time at McDonalds or Hungry Jacks or Woolies or Coles stacking shelves or whatever. There seems to be a ready-made job market for those people. What about the people who are not going to university and who may be on Newstart or youth allowance because of a poor family background and low educational outcomes? What do you advocate for them?
Mr Cummings : Our biggest concern there is that the current rate of benefits and allowances is inhibiting young people from those backgrounds from entering the job market. Young people constantly tell us that they cannot afford to buy the kinds of clothes that they need in order to turn up to a job interview, or that when they do they look scruffy or unkempt in second hand clothes that are not acceptable in the workplace. Similarly, they cannot afford a haircut to make them look neat and tidy and clean.
Senator GALLACHER: As someone who used to get a lot of jobs in the seventies, I must say that my hair was down to my shoulders! I didn't have any trouble getting a job then!
Mr Cummings : Yes, but that was the seventies! But I think there is a difference with the kinds of roles you were talking about. In McDonald's or Woolworths and so on there is maybe a lower expectation. I guess our concern with that is that young people often get trapped in those low roles. They cannot actually get out of those, and when they are working in those roles they are earning just enough to survive. It is definitely more than if they are on benefits, but often they are caught in that cycle that they are not able to save enough money to buy the clothes or even afford transport. The young woman I mentioned who is studying law now but who used to be homeless was talking about the fact that in Sydney it costs her over $4 return to get the train to and from university. She says there are some days when she has to skip classes because she does not have the $4 for a train. For those of us on an income, that just seems crazy; $4 is nothing. But what we hear constantly from these young people is that those very small amounts of money are the difference between being able to afford a train or not, or being able to afford fresh fruit and vegetables compared to two-minute noodles, to use the example I gave before. So we are very concerned about whether or not the current system is acting as an incentive to employment and to study, and we see disincentives on both sides—on both the study side and the employment side.
Senator McKENZIE: Yesterday we heard commentary around the points of transition from school to work et cetera, and the interplay of Newstart and youth allowance with that. I am just wondering whether you have any commentary around youth allowance, the family tax benefit system et cetera, and how that works for young people, particularly those who are going into apprenticeships or who have left school prior to year 12 and are not going on to higher education.
Mr Cummings : I have to plead a bit of ignorance with that. I do not have a really in-depth knowledge. I know ACOSS's submission goes into a lot more detail about the intricacies of some of those things.
Senator McKENZIE: Could you take that on notice?
Mr Cummings : Yes, certainly.
Senator McKENZIE: I would really like a youth perspective on that, both for those who have to live away from the regions to get their job or apprenticeship—those who have to leave home—and for those who stay. The other thing I would like to know is your opinion on the gap year. How much of that is actually a result of the perverse youth allowance criteria? We say students are taking a gap year for this restorative process after year 12. I am probably of a different opinion, and I would appreciate your opinion on that.
Ms Henry : I guess I am a bit different to a lot of my friends. I think the view of a gap year is that you take it just so you can go on a fun Euro-trip—which is good; Euro-trips are fun. A lot of my friends did that, and I wish I did. I took my gap year and worked full time and saved all my money so I could come to university and have that buffer, so I could settle into university life without having to get work straight away and things like that. I think the 18-month rule for getting youth allowance—you have to essentially work full time for 18 months—makes things really difficult. I worked full time in a corporate job for most of my gap year and still had to shift around and struggle and do all those calculations and things like that, just to qualify for independent youth allowance, even though I know that because I worked full time for almost a year I earned enough money. I was one of the lucky ones who got it just on the transition. I have friends who are really struggling with it now. I did this little callout on Facebook last night: 'Friends, if you have anything to say about Centrelink, now's your chance.' One girl said she worked three jobs, seven days a week, but, because she worked only 27 hours a week while she was studying, she still could not qualify.
I think taking a gap year to work was a really sensible idea. It gave me a really good grounding and was a nice buffer between the comfort of school and the very different lifestyle of university. I do not think it is sensible to expect that young people take 18 months off to work. As Andrew alluded to, the number of people going to university after a year off is quite high but, after that initial gap year, the number of people that drop-off is quite high.
Senator McKENZIE: Aside from increasing the amount, are there any other changes to increase the number of young people in work that you would like to see system wide?
Mr Cummings : We would agree with ACOSS's submission with regard to where we believe the focus should be particularly for young students. We believe that the onus should be on using the current system to alleviate poverty rather than acting as a general thing for all students. One of the things we hear a lot is that there is this belief that just about any young person that is studying can get youth allowance and therefore very few of them are actually experiencing poverty. They come from middle-class backgrounds and families who are able to support them so youth allowance is just a bit of a luxury. That is not the story we are hearing time and time again. What we hear is that most young people are experiencing real difficulty in getting by and making ends meet.
We would also like to see more thought around the kind of support that young people need in addition to the money that they earn in order to address the transitions like what Senator McKenzie was talking about. We are doing a lot of work looking at, for example, alternative education pathways that help young people who have maybe slipped through the education system without getting year 12 or an equivalent to reintegrate. I believe there needs to be greater investment in the approach of better understanding the range of ways that that young people could be supported to either stay in education or get back into education once they have left.
We could do a lot of work on developing Senator Back's idea of creating the flexibility to use agricultural work as part of that gap year experience and of creating a culture where that is possible and seen as a positive thing. But, again, there is going to be the impact of young people like Polly, who have gone and found themselves a job that pays a reasonably good income so that they can save money to go and study. If you take up an agricultural role, that is only generally for a shorter period of time at fairly low wages. That is not likely to provide the kind of buffer that young people are looking to get before they go back into education if that is the reason they took the gap year.
Senator McKENZIE: In regional areas or pockets of high youth unemployment, do you see a distinct suite of strategies being required there? I would be interested to hear how that might be addressed.
Mr Cummings : One of our biggest concerns is the very different experiences across different areas and across rural and remote communities with regard to youth service provision. We hear constantly about communities of similar sizes and demographics where one community has a very well resourced suite of youth support programs and another community 100 kilometres down the road has virtually nothing. We are really concerned. We believe that youth services are essential community services that all communities should have access to and all young people should have the right to access the type of support they need at that stage in their lives.
Senator McKENZIE: Do we have any data on the provision of the services tied with outcomes in those communities? If you have, could you provide it.
Mr Cummings : We have not at the moment as it is something we are developing. We are just about to do a national snapshot of youth service delivery not only looking at the youth sector workforce—who is employed, their qualifications and so on—but also looking at some of that impact measurement. AYAC has also been working closely with Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth to start to develop some better measures of the impact because that is something that is lacking in Australia at the moment. We have anecdotal information but we want to be able to present hard evidence around the impact and the benefits of that kind of service delivery.
Senator SIEWERT: I want to focus on low-income families for a little bit and the issue around when a young person is independent or not. Certainly, from my personal interactions with low-income families, a low-income family struggles harder to support a younger person as they are 16, 17 and 18 than a more well-to-do family does. Have you had any experience beyond my anecdotal experience—and you read about it as well—of low-income families struggling with this issue around when a young person is independent or not? Ms Henry, in relation to the issue you brought up about when you are independent and when you are not independent, for low-income families I suspect it is much more at the pointy end around when they are independent and when a family struggles to support them.
Mr Cummings : Absolutely. I think, as you say, there is a harder edge to that idea of a young person being independent and more pressure on the young person to become independent at an earlier age. Not only do we hear that young people are forced into taking responsibility for their own lives at an earlier age; there is often pressure put on them to actually contribute to supporting the family. So they are not just independent; they actually have others dependent on them. That is certainly something that we hear, particularly from families where unemployment is entrenched, and the long-term thing is that often there is pressure on young people to get out to work early and education is seen as a luxury.
Even if they are interested in and willing to go out and study, the rate of youth allowance for students is lower than that for those who are unemployed. So if a young person is forced to choose between going on unemployment benefits or the study rate of youth allowance, families who are experiencing real financial pressure are sometimes encouraging young people to go on unemployment benefits rather than to study because the short-term benefit is that there is more money in the family, even though we know that the long-term benefit is much greater if the young person is able to go and study further.
Senator SIEWERT: That is a point that the Australia Institute makes in one of their papers, where they talk about the perverse incentive:
We earlier mentioned that students are effectively encouraged on to Newstart rather than student assistance because it has lower payment rates.
Mr Cummings : Yes. We also hear anecdotally—and I do not have hard facts on this—examples of young people who are seeking ways to get on the disability support pension rather than unemployment benefits because it is a higher rate. We know from the research that has been done that the pathways off the disability support pension are much more extreme than those off Newstart allowance. Generally, people on Newstart allowance end up leaving it by getting a job, whereas with the disability support pension generally people either go on the age pension or they die, and that is how they come off it. We are really concerned about that incentive that makes young people look for opportunities to be classed as disabled rather than be actively seeking work. We know some of the consequences that come from that.
Senator SIEWERT: In terms of Work for the Dole and the various schemes that have been around, what has been the organisation's experience? With Work for the Dole, I preface this with that some of my experience has been about going out to dig holes et cetera. To be frank, other than if you are in a regular occupation, there does not seem to be a lot of growing and learning from it.
Mr Cummings : Certainly what we hear from young people is that what they want is real jobs and real experiences. I think young people often see the Work for the Dole experience as kind of babysitting. They are being made to do these very menial tasks that do not really provide with them with a lot. There are varying stories. You do hear stories from young people who say that they actually found it really valuable, particularly if it was for a shorter period of time, and that they were then able to get into the workforce as a result of it. I do think there are some benefits from those things I talked about earlier in terms of development of social skills and that regular experience of getting up every day at a certain time in order to get to a placement, so I think there are some benefits, but I guess what we do hear time and time again from young people is that if it feels like a fake experience there is a detraction from any benefit they might get from it because they do not see it as being a real experience.
One of the concerns—and I know it is probably outside the remit of this hearing—about the current Job Services Network is that there is not enough emphasis on tailoring support to young people and the particular needs that they have. We are concerned about the loss of programs like the JPET program, the job placement employment training program, that was particularly tailored towards supporting younger people with higher needs. We have been talking with Kate Ellis's office, for example, and other ministers and departments about some of those concerns and ways to overcome them, but I think there is an overlap between that and the points that you are raising, Senator,
Senator SIEWERT: It is not outside the remit of this committee. We are going exactly where I wanted to go next. That was my question. Yesterday we were talking to a lot of witnesses about the adequacy of employment services and there is agreement that they are for a certain group but there are various cohorts that are not the long-term unemployed. I want to ask you about support for young people who need specific tailored services. We have been talking about issues around case management or tailored services. What are the things that you think they could be doing differently, on top of what you have just said, to better support young people?
Mr Cummings : One of our biggest concerns amongst the things we would most like to see, particularly for those more extreme, so streams 3 and 4, are more flexible outcome options within the current or new contract arrangements as they come up. At the moment the emphasis on placing everyone in either employment or a recognised qualification ignores the fact that for many of these young people, particularly those who end up as long-term unemployed, what is lacking is those social and life skills. That stuff about—
Senator SIEWERT: Job-ready—
Mr Cummings : Exactly—the ability to get up in the morning and turn up every day and the things like presenting yourself in clean clothes and with your hair done and your teeth brushed and all that kind of stuff. For many young people, particularly either if they have come from experiences of homelessness or unsuitable accommodation or if they have been unemployed for long periods of time, being able to develop those skills in order to be job-ready is really critical. The overemphasis on placing young people in employment means that often young people are being placed in order for the JSA provider to be able to meet an outcome but the young people are not able to sustain that employment because they do not have those core skills that help them to stay there.
Senator SIEWERT: In other inquiries and contacts I have heard that a lot of the issues that have come up have been around literacy and numeracy skills. There are a number of young people who do not have those basic skills. They have managed to get through the education system and not have their literacy and numeracy; I am sure you have heard the stories as well as I have. I have also heard concerns that there is not enough recognition by the employment services of the need to provide those services—not enough remuneration for providing those sorts of basic skills, either by finding the training programs that can provide them or them doing it. I have heard some of the most extraordinary stories of particularly regional employment services who are actively working with young people to get them job-ready but it does not get them any ticks in any boxes.
Mr Cummings : Yes, exactly. We hear those things all the time: that there just is not enough focus in the current contracting arrangements to provide the flexibility to the case managers or job service providers to focus attention on those things which are so critical to young people being able to gain and keep employment. We believe that in the next round the contract needs to be much more flexible in terms of providing opportunities to develop those life skills and/or literacy and numeracy skills, which underpin any other kind of qualification they might be able to access.
Senator SIEWERT: This is probably a departmental question that I need to ask, but what percentage of young people are you aware of that end up streams 3 and 4?
Mr Cummings : I could not tell you off the top of my head but I am happy to find out if that is useful.
Senator SIEWERT: If you could give us an understanding by stream, yes.
Mr Cummings : Okay. I know that the Youth Affairs Council of Victoria did some research late last year or early this year, looking particularly at the Job Services Network and the impact it is having. I am happy to go and look at that research, but I can refer you to that.
Senator SIEWERT: That would be really useful; thank you.
CHAIR: I have one other question or comment on this. I have been listening to the discussion of the last few minutes. This committee has just been in China, looking at education and other issues. We are an incredibly wealthy country. Our children, almost to a person, get through to year 12 and yet we are hearing evidence of kids leaving school and they are not literate, not numerate, not job ready and therefore they are falling to groups like yours to do something with them. I am sorry to sound frustrated but, when you look at other countries which I have worked in and which we have visited—many Asian countries and Middle Eastern countries, Indian countries, Pakistan and Sri Lanka—what is going wrong when we have an incredible investment in education? Everyone is saying we have to spend more, as well as spend more on social security and welfare and more on health and more here and there. Yet, after 12 years of school, children are leaving, they cannot read, they cannot write and they are not job ready. Do you have a comment or is it just me? If 98 per cent of the rest of the world were listening into this conversation, I am sure they would be scratching their heads, saying, 'What country am I listening to?' In a nutshell, where are we going wrong? We are the people who make the laws and you are the people who are picking up the failures. We have to do it better.
Mr Cummings : It is my belief, not necessarily the belief of my organisation, that the education system in Australia tends to be quite inflexible. We have got this mentality that we turn young people through and that they come out as sausages at the end rather than having a suite of programs and activities that meet the needs of different young people with different learning styles and so on. I think we do a really good job of teaching young people whose primary learning style is either auditory or visual but a really bad job of educating those who have a more tactile look and aesthetic learning style. Those are the young people who often end up falling through the gaps or failing the education system and, if we are lucky, they get picked up by these alternative education programs, some of which do a fantastic job of re-engaging them. But my problem with that approach is that it makes the young people into problems rather than recognising that there is a limitation within the education system and that we need a more flexible approach. We hear those figures that you are alluding to where roughly 20 per cent of young people are leaving and are, to some extent, being failed by the education system.
But I believe there is an even bigger margin of young people who are surviving school but not thriving in it. I totally welcome and celebrate the debate that the Gonski report has brought up in looking at the education system. But we would really like to see a strong investment in exploring more creative approaches to working with young people across those learning styles and recognising those things at an earlier age so that young people are not being picked up at 15 when, traditionally, in the past they would have gone off and maybe got an apprenticeship if they were not suitable for school because their learning style did not suit that. But now we have closed that opportunity and so we are forcing these young people to stay in education where, in the past, at age 15 they often went off and found something they were really good at—they were a great plumber, carpenter or electrician. So that managed to catch them at a really critical time before it became part of this internalising and starting to go, 'I must be the problem; I'm the failure.' I am scared about what the implication might be down the track if we keep putting a lid on that and forcing young people to stay in education until age 18 but not providing the kind of flexible options that they need.
Senator McKENZIE: When you get the data of stream 1 and stream 2, can you also look at gender in that conversation?
Mr Cummings : Yes.
CHAIR: Thank you.
Mr Cummings : Thank you very much for the opportunity.