Among the changes wrought by COVID-19, few have been as disruptive as school closures. School structures daily life for children and families, providing safe harbour for all, including during life’s storms such as family breakdown and financial or housing stress. As this vital infrastructure was pulled away, vulnerabilities were revealed that require joined-up responses between education and social services.
While most children have returned to school, recent research indicates that many families will require support to catch up on missed learning and deal with economic consequences and other fall-out from the pandemic. A recent report from the Grattan Institute notes that teachers in economically disadvantaged areas believe that few of their students are able to engage effectively in remote learning. Job loss and other stressors are exacerbating challenges and heightening the need for support to be available to all.
The current climate presents a unique opportunity for governments and the NGO sector to develop models of effective placed-based service delivery that use schools as service hubs and will serve children and families well now and into the future. As Australia recovers, policymakers should recognise that schools enable multidisciplinary collaboration to address concerns including child protection, poverty, learning, and disability support.
A collaboration between the Association of Child Welfare Agencies, the NSW government, the Parenting Research Centre and the University of Sydney is encouraging professional conversations across the education and social services sector about collaboration to support all children and families. A community of practice series has engaged professionals around New South Wales, to hear and share practical examples of school-based supports.
Creative practices to stay connected
Even in lockdown, schools have continued to provide vital logistical and emotional support to children and families.
Menindee is a small school with 95 students located in far western NSW and the student population is 75% Aboriginal. The COVID-19 lockdown in this community was taken very seriously, with many children and families at home for weeks on end. There were very few, if any children or young people on the streets or even outside in their yards. Executive Principal Fiona Kelly and teachers at the school wanted to find ways to stay in touch and came up with an innovative approach: Menindee Kitchen Rules.
This initiative has involved setting a weekly cooking challenge. This might be deciding on a base for cooking such as pasta and inviting all families to cook a topping of their choice with a limit of five ingredients. Food boxes are distributed to families presenting an opportunity to touch base with them as the boxes were dropped off. It also has the added benefit of providing some extra food to families. Once dishes the are prepared they were photographed and uploaded to the school Facebook page.
This initiative has empowered parents to feel more confident in supporting their child’s education during lockdown, enabling them to teach their children cooking skills. This reflects a strong belief in Menindee that every opportunity to build relationships between the school and families, other agencies and the community should be taken up.
“It’s the schools that know the families best”
When there are serious concerns about a child’s safety and well-being, engaging families through their school relationships can be the most successful way to offer support.
Southwest Sydney has piloted a joint referral process that has been developed to address complexities in meeting the needs of school children that cannot be addressed by a single agency. This pilot is based on a strategy trialled by Uniting, to link families to their services through schools. This pilot had originally been part of the work of Their Futures Matter (TFM), a landmark reform aimed at using an investment approach bringing together services from across government portfolios that is more child and family focused, easier to navigate and will ultimately prevent escalating risk.
This pilot, Collaborative Support Pathways, recognised that although Child Protection services within the Department of Community Services (DCJ) were able to identify children and families at risk they were not always able to provide the best service response, especially those who do not meet the ‘risk of significant harm’ (ROSH) threshold. In these situations, this program has been able to assist, using cross-agency partnership that provided some great collaborative solutions for children and families.
While these efforts are quite advanced now, it started with an NGO developing a strategy with local schools.
Collaboration between community services and education
The Community of Practice series invited participants to share their own practice examples of collaboration to support all children and families. These examples demonstrate the range and creativity of practices, from data sharing to targeted support for children in out-of-home care.
The Association of Child Welfare Agencies is putting a spotlight on the need for government and the NGO sector to work together to develop models of effective place-based service delivery using schools as service hubs, building from existing initiatives and practices, and scaling up this work across NSW.