Latrobe Valley’s education stakeholders have slammed an apparent State Government backflip as a “complete balls-up”, after funding uncertainty threw a school-based suicide prevention program into disarray.
Local coordinators of the School Focused Youth Service, a support program aimed at strengthening the outlook of vulnerable children through early intervention, say funding uncertainty had jeopardised the effectiveness of the operation.
Two of Gippsland’s four coordinators have already left their positions, after being informed in November their contracts would not be renewed on 30 June.
However in a surprise turnaround, State Education Minister Martin Dixon announced earlier this month the statewide program’s funding would be extended into the new financial year.
Yet as recent as Friday, Latrobe Valley coordinators were yet to receive official word on the program’s fate beyond June, including how long the service would be potentially extended.
Baw Baw and Latrobe Local Learning and Employment Network chief executive Mick Murphy said the unexpected backflip had created unnecessary setbacks for the program.
“This has been grossly interruptive for the program’s rollout over the next six months, all the planning normally done in first half of year for second half of the year has not been done, everyone’s been focusing on winding the program up,” Mr Murphy said.
Mr Murphy said while suicide prevention was the core purpose of the SFYS, the program – targeted at 10 to 18 year-olds – focused on providing collaborative support between schools and community services, a funding targeted engagement programs tailored for each school’s needs.
“Rather than only dealing with circumstances once a terrible event such as suicide occurs, this program not only engages vulnerable children, but proactively works on a wider scale to prevent all the issues that can lead up to such a terrible outcome,” he said.
Latrobe Valley’s remaining full-time SFYS coordinator Beth Sheffield, who has delivered programs to schools in Morwell and Moe for seven years, said she was perplexed by the government’s handling of the program.
“There had been no consultation with agencies or coordinators at all; (news of the program’s wind up) came out of the cold in a letter sent to some agencies – it was a real kick in teeth to hear we were suddenly not valued anymore after all this work we’ve done,” Ms Sheffield said.
“The research is very strong that when parents are participating and engaging with their children’s school, those kids will have better study outcomes, and at the end of the day, if you can keep kids engaged in school, you can vastly improve their outlook.
“So this is about engaging the families who don’t value education – they have often had poor relationships themselves with schools in their pasts, and if that’s the case, they are unlikely to support their kids to continue engaging in school.”
Seemingly contradicting stakeholder accounts, a spokeswoman for Education Minister Martin Dixon said a decision had never been made to end the SFYS.
However she did not explain how stakeholders across the state were given the impression in November the program was to discontinue as of 30 June.
“The department is aware of some staff departures from provider agencies, however services to children and young people in need will be delivered without interruption,” the spokeswoman said.
State Member for Narracan Gary Blackwood said he was “disappointed” the program had suffered setbacks, and was seeking clarification from the Department of Education.
Newborough East Primary School assistant principal Julie Skee said the program had been “invaluable” in providing funds and human resources.
“We know disengagement is a massive issue especially in our area – through the (SFYS) we’ve been able to build a boys shed – which we now called the NEP shed – to engage our students through hands-on activities,” Ms Skee said.
Lowanna College student welfare coordinator Laurel Preston said the program had provided the school with a range of equipment for drug and alcohol and personal development programs.
“It is really important that we try and link vulnerable families into the school – they need to be able to feel at ease with the school and contact us, so any service that facilitates that is really, really important,” Ms Preston said.
For help or information about suicide prevention phone Lifeline on 131 114.