Good things from challenging times: sector advocacy making a difference Analysis

Good things from challenging times: sector advocacy making a difference

“Something that I learned through COVID… How do I put this? In our work we come from a very positive space. So we’re always looking at the positive and learning from the positive. Do you know what I mean?” Sandra Inserra, head of the Navigator program at Anglicare

Coming out of the horrors of 2020-21 with a positive take-home is not a common story.

And for the staff of a program for kids in Melbourne’s west, many of the challenges pre-date the pandemic.

The Navigator program aims to get young people re-engaged in education. Its clients face issues including mental health struggles – most commonly anxiety – problems transitioning to high school, social issues and bullying, family violence, and cultural challenges.

Although census data suggests some of these might be worse in Western Melbourne than some other regions, many issues would resonate with a high proportion of young people anywhere.

And that’s before the high-anxiety pandemic era of health and economic crises, lockdowns and remote learning.

So it’s surprising that the headline message from Sandra Inserra, head of Anglicare’s Western Melbourne Navigator program, is so rosy.

 “If you’d said to me before 2020, ‘What would Navigator look like in a perfect space where we had funding to do extra things, to fill gaps in support across Western Melbourne?’ These are exactly the sorts of things that I would have said.”

It’s worth talking about what these sorts of things are – the things that are making a difference for young people in Melbourne’s west – because they can perhaps make a difference elsewhere, and because the success of the Navigator program is a testament to what can be achieved when front-line services, which are embedded in their communities, are given the funding and flexibility to tailor programs that work.

The Navigator program was set up as part of the rollout of the Education State. Anglicare’s program was one of seven initial pilots set up across the state, which were empowered to come up with their own distinct models of support to meet the needs of local young people.

The program works with kids between 12 and 17, and to meet the criteria for Navigator they need to have only attended school for 30 per cent or less of the prior term.

That’s already a high level of disengagement and a fair distance to travel back towards education. And, according to Inserra, many kids are even further away.

“Sometimes they’d never really commenced secondary school and had a history of disengagement in primary school.”

Although Inserra says that the original model for Navigator was “fantastic” and the program already working well before 2020, there were limitations – the kind of gaps familiar to many people working in client-facing roles in the sector.

“There were things we really wanted to be able to do that we couldn’t, because the funding didn’t allow for additional types of supports. The funding was specifically for case management.”

Many of the challenges faced by the young people Navigator worked with were related to mental health. The pre-COVID program wasn’t set up to offer a general counselling service, or one that provided outreach to young people in their homes or wherever they felt safe.

“Sometimes they’d never really commenced secondary school and had a history of disengagement in primary school.”

Inserra says, “In our area, there were some counselling and mental health services available but either the criteria were quite strict or, in terms of the outreach options available, they may not have been to the home. We have some generalist counselling programs in our area that will provide counselling, say, from community centres or local venues, but some of our young people didn’t have capacity to access those.”

Youth counselling outreach is now offered through the Navigator program, in addition to case management outreach (as public health guidelines allow).

There were also other gaps related to young people’s wider needs, such as social issues or autism spectrum disorder, which the one-on-one case management model wasn’t set up to address directly.

In response to the particular challenges posed to young people in 2020, community service organisations, students, families, teachers and schools stepped up their advocacy for greater and more flexible funding.

The Department of Education and Training (DET) proved responsive, coming to the table with ‘boost’ funding, particularly geared towards mental health support for young people who’d further disengaged from education, and additional tailored support for priority cohorts including young people in contact with the justice system.

Importantly, this funding was provided with flexibility to tailor additional programs to local conditions. Front-line providers worked with DET to identify how and where the funding could best be used, so they were able to start providing services that had already been identified as missing.

For the staff of the Navigator program in Western Melbourne, this meant being able to put in place new forms of support including outreach youth counselling, social groups where Navigator clients can meet other young people experiencing similar challenges, and online support groups for parents.

“Because we were already there, and we’d already been talking pre-COVID about how great it would be if we were able to provide extra services, turning that funding into new forms of support went really well.”

It’s a story that testifies to the value of ongoing partnerships between community service organisations, government departments and schools, in getting the best ‘bang for buck’ in outcomes for students. And it’s a combination of funding and organisational responsiveness that the COVID era has shown is possible.

The challenges presented to kids by 2020-21 are far from over. But the trajectory for young people participating in the Navigator program is heartening: a majority of them are reconnecting with education in some form, while a small minority are supported to access alternative pathways.

And with counselling interventions, social and recreational groups and additional support for families, Inserra hopes that the impacts of back-to-back lockdowns and remote learning will be lessened.

We’ve all needed all the good news stories we can get this year. And, as Sandra Inserra puts it, “I think it’s worthwhile celebrating amazing things when they happen.”