Ollie commando crawls across aged carpet, weaving between chair legs and pram wheels toward the open door. With plump, rosy cheeks and mop of blonde curls, the cherubic ninja powers towards freedom. Against clattering equipment and garbled music, distant laughter and muted discussions echo through the building. Sky blue track pants fall away behind him, exposing chunky white legs and one striped sock. He motors on. Aromas waft into the room, beckoning him out further. A few more sneaky paces and he can investigate.
Patent black shoes, bare ankles then two tall legs block the way. Ollie cackles being scooped into the air. With a few bouncy steps, he is returned to the classroom. Chubby little fingers reach toward the sign on the door, ‘Welcome’.
Ollie wriggles, burying his face into Helen’s chest in mock coyness. She snuggles the 11-month old close, muffling delighted squeals as they return to the classroom.
“Poo! You stink,” she whispers, carrying him around a battered table, past laminated posters featuring parts of speech, multiplication tables, safety instructions and the Wiggles.
“Here you are,” Helen announces, startling girls huddled around a laptop, “time for new pants here.”
Ollie’s mother Jackie is enrolled in a program created to meet the unique educational needs of young parents. Like 3.8% of all Australian births last year, Ollie was born to a mother under the age of twenty.
Seventeen-year-old Jackie disengaged from formal education in year eight. Headstrong and confident, she confesses, “I quit school and didn’t do anything for nearly a whole year, just doing my own thing, rebelling. I was so naughty.” She recognises she made some poor choices and followed a bad crowd into trouble. Picking at nail polish, she admits school didn’t interest her. She yearned for independence and didn’t like authority. Jackie felt forced to learn things of no interest. She believed she didn’t belong, so left.
Alienation and social isolation contribute to poor school retention. These feelings are amplified if a girl becomes pregnant. Someone young with the extraordinary responsibility of a child, may not find traditional schooling relevant. Add sleepless nights, nappy changes, health concerns, potential post natal depression plus breastfeeding and it’s no wonder teen parents have little in common with school peers.
Diversitat’s Young Parents Program (YPP) gives the opportunity for young expectant mothers and teen parents to meet and exchange experiences. Peer teaching and learning occurs in a welcoming environment. YPP provides somewhere positive and motivating to belong, a first for some students.
Helen Foord developed and coordinates YPP. She mentors young mothers with a warm, calm manner, knowledge and compassion. Beyond literacy and numeracy, Helen teaches nutrition, baby settling techniques, infant development, time management and first aide.
The classroom is in a community centre, where members of the public gather to learn and share skills. Jackie and Ollie learn together. While Jackie works toward achieving her Victorian Certificate of Advanced Learning, (VCAL) Ollie socialises with other children, spends time with different people, enjoying new toys away from home.
Students are taught how to access to community resources. Learning how to ask for help gives parents greater confidence. YPP sessions include support from welfare workers, personal trainers and cooking classes. The core of YPP is ensuring relevance and purpose in learning.
Jackie was embarrassed at not reading or writing well, so a friend recommended YPP after experiencing the program. “I used to hear things some adults talk about and think, I have no idea what they were saying. When I had to fill in forms, I always had to get someone to help me out, as I just couldn’t get it.”
With Ollie, Jackie’s world is changing for the better. Having a child in her teens made her eligible for YPP and motivated to complete secondary education. Improving literacy and numeracy brings future choices. She gains confidence along with qualifications.
Becoming a mother at any age is challenging, but Jackie’s process is an extraordinary learning curve. “I’m out of home for the first time, cooking, balancing money, being a parent and doing everything. I used to hear Mum talking about how hard her job [as a mother] was and I ‘d think, ‘oh yeah’, but she’s right. It’s difficult… Not what I imagined.” Jackie seems more mature than most seventeen year olds, highly organised and well attuned to her son’s needs. Life experience made her street-smart, YPP increases her book-smarts.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare use educational levels as “indicators of individual’s ability to compete in competitive labour markets”. In their recent report on health and wellbeing, they link reduced literacy rates to a reduction in employment prospects and decreased health. The institute’s research observes “completion of secondary education is important for full participation in many aspects of adult life, related to socio-economic status and the potential for better health”.
Specialist Midwife, Lisa Henderson, coordinates Baxter House antenatal service for young mothers. She notes positive opportunities for change can come from pregnancy. “I’ve seen some girls go down a wrong path then find a better way because of having a baby. Whether or not they stay with that good choice becomes another issue. I’ve seen lots of good, positive outcomes from teen.”
In her office at Geelong hospital, Lisa is the front line with teenagers, providing pregnancy care for the regions mothers under the age of 20. In a quiet, reflective manner she comments that a baby can mean a future with greater choices, especially for disadvantaged teens. Re-engagement with education is one such opportunity. “I do a lot of work trying to get girls back into education. Just bringing up the subject, ‘how do you feel about going back to school or doing some kind of course’ is important. It’s good to be engaged and belong to something, rather than just waiting around for months for a baby to arrive.”
Parents carry enormous financial burden. Career paths become few or non existent without education. Lisa sees “some girls are certainly very motivated to continue their learning. I’ve seen some who had dropped out of education get back into education because they now have responsibilities and they want to go down a good path. They become more motivated. Some girls just drift and don’t see links between education and their life outcomes.”
After two terms of YPP Jackie sees the benefit. “I’m only just starting to really get how you all [educated adults] talk to each other. You use big words, different words. Before I was at Diversitat, I’d have had no idea what you were saying. I’d nod and smile. I love now my mind’s opened up. A click happens. Things just fall into place, one thing after another. Things just get easier.”
Jackie is changing from school drop out to productively employed, thanks to her little boy.