One such example, typical of the life trajectories that we never hear about, is Jack* who met with me at his school in 2017. He arrived with a freshly washed and ironed white shirt replete with a new bow tie and slightly oversized, and clearly second-hand waistcoat. His shoes were polished and he was confident, proud and keen for me to recognise his incredible achievement. It was however, a seemingly simple achievement that most Australian parents, guardians and students take for granted. Jack’s beaming badge of honour was that after five years detached from formal education of any form (except the school of super-hard knocks), he was now enrolled in a caring and compassionate, albeit incredibly unusual, school. Jack considered that his commitment to finding his way back to an educational arena of any type after all that he had been through, to be both his lifeline and his greatest achievement.

For Jack to be in a school with committed teachers who helped him locate and lease a small apartment and find basic furniture so he could live and support himself, was nothing short of a miracle.

He wanted me, as the Director General to personally know that not only was he now attending school, he was for the first time in his life committed and determined to be successful. He also wanted a photo with me, not so much as his keepsake, but for me, as the Director General, to remember him and to acknowledge the great school and caring staff that would have a person with a history like his as a student.

Like many unfortunate and ‘invisible’ young Australians under the age of seventeen, Jack left school during the formal compulsory years and nobody noticed. It seems his school did not report him missing when he stopped coming in Year five. If it did, then the NSW school system did not undertake any regular audit and investigation that would have revealed that Jack had been lost to education. His family simply did not care that he had just walked out the door and disappeared. He didn’t initially come to the attention of, and wasn’t initially supported or directed by, the juvenile justice or health systems, not-for-profit community organisations or any other agency that we all imagine would prevent our most vulnerable kids from being abandoned by school systems.

As Jack told me that day, he just left home at ten years of age and slept either on the streets or, when fortunate, on friends couches and, along the way, he became an ice-addict. For five years from the age of ten to fifteen, he was addicted to methamphetamine. For Jack to be in a school with committed teachers who helped him locate and lease a small apartment and find basic furniture so he could live and support himself, was nothing short of a miracle. Unfortunately, not everyone who is down and out gets to experience miracles, especially in our Australian education systems. We don’t harness or, in many cases, even share our student data (even if we actually attempted to record and identify detached students) across government departments to crossreference and find those who are lost to society. We do little to ensure that stories like Jack’s don’t happen.

Jack graduated from Year 12 at the Pathways College in Brisbane, which is remarkable in itself, but he still has challenges. He is now a 19 year old father who has an onerous responsibility to shepherd his own child along a pathway that will provide more security and opportunity that he has experienced.Time will tell.

It is also wonderful to note that Jack managed to convince his sister to contact the alternative Pathways College in order to enrol; which she did. Like all of the committed and unique alternative schools located in parts of the country, they are not looking for new students. Many have waiting lists and are doing their best to save kids who desperately need a hand. There just aren’t anywhere near enough of them to stem this tragic neglect by all parts of our society.

Dr Jim Watterston

*not his real name