The other day I was talking to a teaching colleague about a troublesome student we’d both taught. He’s in Year 10 and notorious for his absenteeism and, when in class, his disruptive behaviour and refusal to do any work. She informed me that his parents had just been fined because of his truancy. When this boy – let’s call him Callum – was informed of the fine in the hope that it might arrest his chronic absenteeism, he laughed. Laughed that his parents had been fined because of him!
I work at a school with a low socio-economic demographic: lots of single parents, casual and part-time workers, and welfare dependent people.
Callum’s mother said she dropped him off at school every day, but he just walked into the school and kept walking to the back of the school and then disappeared into the back streets. She and her husband have three much younger children, are financially struggling, and are unable to control Callum. The thousand dollar fine flattened them, bought tension into what must already be a tense situation.
The fine was part of the NT government’s attempt to reign in the high absenteeism and poor educational outcomes that plague the NT education system in urban and remote schools. It came on the back of the federal government’s decision, as part of the intervention, to withhold a proportion of people’s welfare if their children had an unacceptable and unexplainable level of absenteeism.
Implicit in the federal government’s ‘welfare fine’ is the belief that high levels of absenteeism are the preserve of Indigenous Australians. It’s not. Callum is not Indigenous, and, although I work in a school with one of the highest Indigenous enrolments for an urban school in Australia, a high proportion of chronic waggers in my classes are non-Indigenous.
If any government policy represents the chasm between the lives of politicians and those of their ‘constituents’ this must be it. The idea of financially penalising parents for the behaviour of their teenage children is the most ill-conceived piece of garbage to issue out of Canberra or from the mouth of the NT Chief Minister, Paul Henderson.
No doubt most of these politicians’ children go to well funded (by the government) private schools that are well resourced with small classes. The students want to go there and behave accordingly – because if they don’t they’ll be tossed out onto the scrap heap of the public education system before they can download the next song onto their ipod.
No one’s going to be fining any politician because their children are delivered to the school gate, then piss off to smoke bongs at a mate’s place all day every day for most of the term. The reality of juggling low-paying jobs or welfare with multiple kids with multiple demands in a world in which you’re drowning more than treading water is not one politicians share.
So it’s easy to make a policy that penalises parents for the sins of their children when you have the economic stability, social mobility, community networks and family structures to lessen the chance of the more obvious sins ( such as chronic wagging) to occur. In the eyes of these policy makers, it’s the parent’s fault their children aren’t in school. Inherent in this blame-the-parents discourse is the belief that members of the underclass don’t value education, so they need to be forced to ensure their children get an education.
Yes, I have met some parents who have this view but it’s a very small minority. Most often the phone calls that I and my colleagues make to parents in relation to chronic absenteeism results in the same outcome: parent(s) saying they don’t know what to do with their teenage children, that they have no influence. They’re told to fuck off on a regular basis, their children are out most of the night and they don’t know where. They take them to school but they never get to class and any sort of punishment is useless as they either ignore it or run away and stay at a mate’s place for weeks on end.
Sometimes the parent(s) say they have a young sick child and the older child has to stay home from school to take care of their sibling because they can’t take time off work because they don’t get sick pay. Often the parent(s) go to work well before school starts and leave their children to get to school under their own steam, which they don’t.
These experiences aren’t ones that politicians undersand. To them, blaming parents – and fining them – for the inability of their children to get to school is nice and simple, far simpler that looking at the education system and the economic system and deciding they need a radical overhaul, admitting that things aren’t working for many people in ‘the lucky country.’ For those struggling parent(s) who cop a fine or a deduction from their welfare payment because of the behaviour of their teenage children, it’s a bloody unlucky country and it just got a shitload unluckier because they can’t afford to buy food for the family table.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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