Welfare Payments Reform: School Attendance Tied to Welfare Payments

  © Beverley Paine, July 2007

Many in homeschooling land have seen this coming for a long time, largely because our politicians are still for the most part ignorant of the option of homeschooling but also because our society is indoctrinated with the dogma that the only education available is a school education. I believe that educating both the population and politicians about the success and viability of home education is the best path to changing this perception. This is what a small number of dedicated home educating volunteers have been doing, to my knowledge, for over two decades.

It would be good at this critical time in home ed history in Australia to see some wide-spread support for those activists, or better still, ALL home educators making their ideas, philosophies, thoughts and concerns and NEEDS more widely known. Now is not the time to sit back and let others fight for the freedoms we currently enjoy or have let slip in the past…

There is an excellent website called How to Get Politicians Attention which outlines the relative effectiveness of the different methods you can use to contact politicians, as well as offering links to help you find their contact details.

The Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs has produced a downloadable paper called Welfare Payments Reform: Enhancing Parental Responsibility for School Attendance . I urge all homeschoolers to read this document. It’s only four pages long and written in a accessible style.

According to this document families who are registered as home educators or have exemption from attending school will be required to comply with the new welfare payment reforms:

“Will this initiative apply to apply to enrolment and attendance at both public and non-government schools?
Yes, this initiative applies to all children of compulsory school age including students receiving approved home schooling and distance education.” [page 4]

All Australian government income support and family payments will be considered in the new income management arrangements which will come into effect from the start of the 2008 school year. This will begin with random checks for the first six months to provide evidence of school attendance, and then the management process will start in earnest from July 2008. The paper does not state how home educators would be required to prove attendance at home schools, though I imagine that legally a home school diary signed by the parent every day would be a minimum requirement. A more onerous requirement might see home educators forced to comply with state or national curriculum guidelines.

Although collecting data on non-attending school students is a mammoth task and the government has not yet informed how this will occur to the various state governments (who, I suspect, will pick up the probably expensive price tag for this operation), I am convinced this reform will be supported by the major parties and will be put into effect within the stated time-frame. Rudd’s reform policy as reported by the ABC shows minor variations on the same theme.

If this does indeed prove to be the case I believe that we will need to focus on not only protesting the principles behind the reform, but also what level of intrusion we are prepared to tolerate in order to prove that we are educating our children at home.

It’s important to put the media hype which has reported that “thousands of Australian families may soon have their government welfare payments confiscated and replaced with restrictive electronic spending cards if their children are neglected or regularly miss school” [Sue Neales, news.com.au] into perspective. This reform is aimed at identifying irresponsible parents. These are a small minority of the general parenting population. However, once again Howard has chosen a clumsy and blunt instrument that will penalise responsible parents as well as those that deserve this kind of attention. And he has, once again, made sensational media-attention-grabbing announcements long before the government has thrashed out on how to implement the reforms. Whether you approve of Howard’s reforms or not this particular approach is frustrating and only provokes unnecessary alarm in the Australian community. More detail and less grandstanding would be appreciated!

Howard’s comment that; “we also know there is a very strong relationship between poor achievement at school and those who become long-term unemployed and welfare dependent – education is the ultimate passport out of welfare dependency” denies decades of research showing the success and efficacy of home education.

Although Howard maintains that this reform is a separate issue to the action already taken against residents of indigenous communities in the Northern Territory as part of the federal government’s crackdown on indigenous child abuse the timing is simply too coincidental to take his comment seriously. Enlarging the reform to embrace all Australians effectively removes any probable legal challenge to his discriminatory policies regarding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families.

As home educators we need to ask whoever we can get to listen:

1. If these reforms meet Howard’s own “test of fairness”? Clearly our politicians believe they do, even though we do not yet know how the reforms will be implemented.
2. Is this the best way to serve ‘at risk’ children and their families?
3. Is this the best way to manage the perennial problem of school truancy?
4. Will this break the “cycle of intergenerational” welfare dependence as promised?
5. How will school attendance guarantee educational attainment for the ‘at risk’ students?
6. How will school attendance guarantee that welfare payments will go towards properly nurturing ‘at risk’ students?
7. Will welfare payments be tied to school performance/outcomes or simply attendance?
8. Why haven’t our child protection agencies been able to adequately deal with ‘at risk’ students and families?
9. Why wait until now to act on what has obviously been a problem spanning many decades?

Ultimately we may be faced with three groups of home educators:

a) registered home educators who will receive government allowances and benefits and who will be able to lobby through organisations such as the HEA for funding and other concessions;

b) unregistered home educators who because they are financially self-reliant will continue to ‘protest’ what they see as infringements on their right/responsibility to parent and educate their children without undue interference by government agencies;

c) home educating families hiding from the education authorities and Centrelink to preserve their right to educate their children according to their family values and beliefs.

For most of us which group we’ll end up in is a matter of conscience, but there are those who won’t have the liberty of choice. Many on low incomes will be forced to comply with regulations and legislation they feel run counter to their religious and personal beliefs. Perhaps it’s time for the homeschooling community to begin discussing how we can build support structures to benefit all home educators. We may need to come up with ways to help families that are currently dependent on income support become independent so that they won’t have to obey laws they find philosophically or spiritually offensive.

We also have to remember that we the people elect the government.
I think it’s time we ALL asked our present and future politicians the above questions and to educate them about the nature of home education.

Read the article at Beverley’s site: http://ha-magazine.beverleypaine.com/2007/july15.html