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Schetzer, Louis --- "Youth affairs" [2001] AltLawJl 58; (2001) 26(3) Alternative Law Journal 150


Towards a new peak

For many involved with youth issues, the announcement by Dr David Kemp in June 1998 that the federal government would no longer provide funding for the Australian Youth Policy and Action Coalition (AYPAC) remains a sore and sorry experience. The announcement proved to be the death knell of AYPAC as an effective and strident national voice on youth issues. Accordingly, AYPAC subsequently wound up in 1999. Since then, the youth sector has sadly missed an independent and critical advocate at the national level on youth issues. The emergence of the National Youth Roundtable failed to pro­ vide such a voice, with even some members critical of the Roundtable's inadequacy to represent young people's issues in any meaningful way.

However, following the release of the ALP Youth Policy Platform in August 2000, which included the commitment to look at funding a new national youth peak organisation, State youth councils and national youth organisations are now actively engaged in working at an acceptable model for a new national youth peak. A recent two-day forum in Melbourne brought together all State and Territory peak youth councils, and a diverse range of national youth organisations including Scouts Australia, St John's Ambulance, the Red Cross, the National Youth Coalition for Housing, and the National Children's and Youth Law Centre, to work to resolve many of the issues surrounding the establishment of a new national youth peak.

Among the principles guiding the development of a new national peak organisation are:

• the role of a national peak to improve the community's response to youth issues;

• the need to maximise input from young people and service providers into the identification, and development of responses to youth issues;

• the importance of developing appropriate mechanisms of consultation with and participation of young people;

• the recognition that expertise on youth issues is located primarily with young people and the organisations that deliver services to them;

• the need to provide mechanisms to facilitate the direct communication between young people and government, and also other stakeholders.

It is envisaged that the new peak would have a constructive stance in relation to government, emphasising a proactive role in

the development of youth policies and strategies through providing access to its constituents for consultation and advice. It would

see it­ self as primarily a partner with government in the development of appropriate responses to youth issues. Where this

approach breaks down, or where there were clear differences between the peak's members and the government of the day on

policy issues, the peak body would also have the capacity to mobilise its membership around specific is­ sues, and thereby seek to impact upon public opinion.

The organisations plan to meet again in the next three months, as models for membership, governance and youth participation are further explored. However, the network publicly declared its commitment to establishing a strong representative voice at the national level for all young people, and is­ sued an advance invitation to all groups interested in the issues that affect young people's lives to become members of the new peak body, to ensure that young people have the · opportunity to have their voices heard. It called on the federal government to recognise the value of an organised representative voice for young people, by appropriately funding this organisation in line with their commitment to govern for all Australians.

Non-government schools and procedural fairness

At a time when considerable public attention has been focused on the level of funding and resourcing of non-government schools, serious questions have been raised about the appropriateness and accountability of disciplinary pro­ cesses exhibited in such schools. A re­ cent report released by the National Children's and Youth Law Centre, revealed that students at non-government schools are often suspended or expelled without a fair hearing, or an opportunity to respond to allegations of misbehaviour. The report further stated that parents and students are often poorly in­ formed of the school's procedures, and that expelled students are given little, if any, assistance to continue their education elsewhere.

The report, 'Non-Government Schools and Procedural Fairness' asserts that suspensions are being increasingly used as a 'quick fix' to any behavioural problems, and are often handed out for trivial indiscretions. Such things as a failure to adhere to haircut stipulations, being tripped over in a fight between other students, or because the student didn't fit in due to 'learning disabilities', were revealed to have been the underlying reasons behind many school enforced absences. The report concludes that many non-government schools are failing to adhere to the basic common law principles of procedural fairness and natural justice, which are now expected in government schools.

The release of the report followed revelations from the Australian Bureau of Statistics that a total of almost one million students - some 31% of all Australian students -now attend private schools. The federal government anticipates that the drift of students into private schools will increase by a further 7% over the next decade.

The damages award in February to a former student of a Sydney Catholic School for long-term physical and psychological injuries sustained from the administration of corporal punishment, signifies the higher level of community expectation of accountability and openness from non-government schools in terms of their internal disciplinary procedures. As non-government schools become increasingly subsidised by the public purse, it is not unreasonable to expect the much needed improvements in their disciplinary processes in relation to suspensions and expulsions. In this world of key benchmarking and performance indicators for publicly funded institutions, it would be entirely appropriate to require non-government schools to ensure that their disciplinary processes are at least consistent with those which exist in government schools, and appropriately accord with the principles of procedural fairness and natural justice.

Louis Schetzer

Louis Schetzer is Director, National Children’s and Youth Law Centre.

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