Interview with The Smith Family


Conversations surrounding poverty are often centred around visions of deprivation and squalor in countries outside of Australia. While this is clearly significant, it can obscure the fact that Australia also has significant rates of poverty and disadvantage that need to be addressed. For example, 1.2 million children and young people are living under Australia’s poverty line and the more general poverty rate is above the OECD average.

In particular, educational disadvantage is a key driver of poverty in Australia, the alleviation of which is consequently a key component of our poverty reduction needs.

It’s important for public health oriented students to pay attention to education as it is a function of the overlapping forms of disadvantage that creates negative public health outcomes and exacerbates poverty. The complexity of poverty in Australia requires approaches from several disciplines to be effectively understood and alleviated, with education and health representing key elements.

Beyond the role of governments and individual kindness, the not-for-profit sector has a substantial role to play in tackling both poverty and disadvantage so that specialised and dedicated expertise can be allocated to critical issues.

One such organisation is The Smith Family, which is an independent Australian charity with the central goal of helping disadvantaged Australian children get the most out of their education, so they can create better futures for themselves.

We were fortunate to be able to interview Anton Leschen, who has graciously provided us with deep insight into educational disadvantage, the challenges of online learning, and the key programs of The Smith Family.

Anton is the General Manager of Victoria for The Smith Family and has been with the charity since 2003.

Below is a brief overview of some key programs offered by The Smith Family for additional context:

Learning for life

“The Smith Family’s Learning for Life program recognises that children living in disadvantage benefit from extra support to stay at school and go on to further studies or a job. Learning for Life helps create better futures for children in need by providing:

  • financial assistance from a sponsor to help disadvantaged families afford the cost of their child’s education; 
  • support from a Learning for Life Program Coordinator to connect the child and their family to local learning opportunities and other supports; and 
  • access to Smith Family educational programs to help children get the most out of their school years.”

The Smith Family also produces research reports, policy submissions, and advocacy, all of which can be found here

Tell us a bit about what led you to your current role

I was raised in a family that saw education as the foundation of a prosperous life for oneself and others. That’s just the world I grew up in. I think we all know and interact with families who talk about what you would do at university, whereas other families often say “we’re not a university family, we don’t go to university.” 

So, for me, education was part of growing up, and the beauty of my education was that its curriculum was really broad and involved outdoor education. This led me to study outdoor education after year 12 where I found my first professional job opportunity with youth at risk, which allowed me to become an outdoor instructor taking kids into the wilderness. My career path then led to youth work, youth and family services, an MBA, management, and now The Smith Family.

Why does The Smith Family choose to begin tackling disadvantage with young people?

The tentacles of disadvantage are multifaceted. We talk about disadvantage because it encompasses many elements that create blockers for people to live healthy, fulfilled, prosperous lives. For example, financial disadvantage is a surface tension, and beneath that, it is possible and likely that other issues are present, including domestic violence, uncertain accommodation, poor health regimes, limited social and professional networks, as well as limited exposure to sport, recreation, arts, and culture. That then creates an isolated existence and a limited trajectory in life. The formation of advantages and disadvantages begins before a child is born. When they’re born into a disadvantaged circumstance, access to vocabulary, literature, literacy, and numeracy are all reduced, which then leads children to be behind even before they get to school. Advantaged children arrive at school ready to learn; through no fault of their own, many children from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t arrive at school ready to learn. This is all foundational. So to break the poverty cycle, education is the life changer to make those impacts, which requires walking beside the child throughout school in a long, slow, steady change in trajectory away from this cycle of disadvantage. 

I would expect that disadvantaged kids are more attuned to what they’re missing out on compared to advantaged kids of what they’re getting. At The Smith Family we think that’s grossly unfair and it is our stated belief that “every child deserves a chance.”

Source: The Smith Family
What do this disadvantage and the results of intervention look like?

It’s a breadcrumb trail; you can see where they would have gone and you can meet each individual. There are dozens of Learning for Life students at the University of Melbourne and you might have sat beside one of them. They are most likely to tell you that they would not be at that university without support. However, we don’t tutor them and make them more intelligent, that is simply their internal capacity being fulfilled.  

Students experiencing disadvantage are unfortunately left to think in terms of their hierarchy of needs. The likely first thing to go when you’re facing social and financial disadvantage is school attendance. Kids drop out of school because they need to help Mum look after all the other kids; because they need to work part-time to earn money to pay for the gas and electricity bills; because they need to get Mum to a refuge due to domestic violence. 

We see thousands of our sponsored children, who complete their education and become employed, because of the support from The Smith family, which enabled them to take their strength and ambition and fulfil their dreams like any kid should be enabled to.

For example, Stephanie* was a Learning for Life participant. When she was in year nine, she went to a school in Shepparton*, where students typically went on to study trades and told her Mum “I want to be a lawyer”. Often students talk about wanting to be lawyers because it was a lawyer who protected their mother from domestic violence, or changed their family circumstances by prosecuting the law. Her mother started crying and said, “Sweetie, I would love to help you go to university, but I don’t know anybody who’s ever gone to university. And I don’t know the first thing about getting into university”. For some readers, this is an incomprehensible situation, and for others, university is a walled city, with no idea of how to get in there. Through Stephanie’s* study and hard work, alongside a great mentor, she got to the University of Melbourne Law school. However, on the first day, she’s listening to everybody, and they’re chatting about their summer holidays together. When they spoke about “Uncle Barry*, the Supreme Court Judge; Aunt Marian*, the QC”, she realised they all knew one another, they all knew the system, and they had all walked through the University of Melbourne before. For them, they were just going through another corridor of their life, whereas Stephanie* realized she was going to have to battle again. The students who graduate despite these barriers are phenomenal people who make our country greater because it reduces social polarity and increases social mobility.

What are some of the links between health and educational disadvantage?

What we do know about our Learning for Life cohort of 56,000 students is that 40% of them are living with their own health issues and 5% have a family member within their extended household with health issues. It’s typical for Learning for Life students to need to care for their siblings or guardians. For example, potentially a parent could be dealing with multiple sclerosis so their kid doesn’t do debating in order to go home and do the shopping or cook dinner or help care for their sibling. This holds people back from their academic pursuits and requires additional time that could have been spent learning and working. 

A story I have from some years ago was about oral health. For children who don’t get raised with brushing teeth, and eating healthily, they lose their teeth really early, and they lose their teeth before they start school. As a result, they don’t smile much, they don’t make eye contact and these can lead people to interact with them as though they’re a sad person. The kids don’t make eye contact because they’re self-conscious about smiling. Despite potentially being a really happy, intelligent kid, their health situation fulfils a cycle of disadvantage, of not getting enough school because you’re lacking confidence.

What are the disadvantages and advantages of online learning compared to face-to-face? And do you think more emphasis on online learning in the future is ideal? 

There’s no doubt that COVID has fast-tracked online education in the last 14 months. In terms of disadvantaged students and online learning, The Smith Family didn’t come into existence because of COVID. We developed Learning for Life decades ago to act on an evidence based need.  Here’s a typical scenario: a single Mum, with seven kids, another child on the way, with one of them having a health issue that requires the child to be driven to the Royal Children’s Hospital every month. The mother lives in a three-bedroom commission house and the children range from preschool, primary school, junior and secondary, and one or two out of school.  The bedrooms are divided with bookshelves and cupboards to try and give privacy to adolescents. That single Mum is a hardworking, dedicated person. She did really well to get her kids up and fed and washed and to the school gate every day. And when the homework came home, with numeracy and literacy, despite her having levels of around year seven herself, she tried really hard to help her kids learn their homework. 

One day (because she’s not reading online emails from school, she is just coping) she gets to the school gate, and the teachers are standing there saying “we’re in lockdown. Go home now and read the emails because you can now do home-schooling.” So she’s got one smartphone with a cracked screen. She needs to read emails from the school to hear about all the online resources for the various children’s primary and secondary schooling. She’s got a house full of seven kids and she’s pregnant. Now let’s imagine that the home schooling day is starting and it’s time to sit down and start school work: are we going to do numeracy and literacy first? That is intense. The idea of parents helping their kids with basic learning was a struggle for Mums and Dads across all of Victoria whether they were disadvantaged or highly resourced. Many families struggle with that high bar. Their appreciation of teachers and schools went through the roof. And their challenges at home, be that domestic violence, consumption of alcohol, or just getting through every day went through the roof. 

And in terms of online learning, it’s a massive presumption that everybody’s got a device. Not every household has data. It’s hundreds of dollars every month to provide data to teenagers, for streaming, zooming, et cetera. It is a technical expense that close to 25% of our participants did not have the necessary hardware and data. What I hate about our world is that the compounding disadvantages pile up against disadvantaged people much more than the privileged.

Source: The Smith Family

My daughter was a babysitter for two kids in primary school whose parents were well educated and financially secure. When they started home-schooling, each of their children was bought a $2000 laptop . That’s not happening in the household in Shepparton. 

So those advantaged kids have had a blip in their education. But for that single Mum and those kids, it’s a challenge being addressed by the Department of Education. 

So let’s think about the year 2020. Our kids in prep were out of school more than they were in school; their orientation to being a school student didn’t happen last year. Grade sixes never became the big kid in the schoolyard. Year sevens in secondary school never found their way moving from primary school to secondary. Years 11 and 12 never got the rounding out of their VCE or the celebration of 13 years of schooling. So for me, COVID is an experience in my life which has had a whole lot of good and a bit of bad. But for children, particularly in those cohorts that I’ve described, it’s had potential lifelong impacts for all kids, let alone kids living in disadvantage.

What do you think are the advantages of being with a child for a long period as opposed to providing them with once-off support?

Short term interventions are not the solution to entrenched disadvantage.  The provision of a calculator in grade five does not break the poverty cycle. You need to walk beside the household and the student before they start school and  through primary and secondary. 

The provision of programs and devices by the government during the COVID pandemic was an excellent response. But the targeting, did it go to the same kid? And did the mother or guardian get the same message year on year on year so that they got through their schooling?

Kids don’t drop out of school in year 9 because of that particular day during year 9.  When kids leave school prematurely it’s because of the five years leading up to their exit, where their writing and maths fell away. And by year seven, they’re sitting there saying, “I don’t get this algebra stuff”, and by year nine they’re gone.

What is exciting about Learning for Life is the targeted walking beside each family. We sign a partnership agreement with parents and guardians that they are being awarded a scholarship, not a benefit, because of their financial disadvantage. 

Source: The Smith Family

At The Smith Family we’re a strength-based organization; we are awarding a scholarship to that student because of their family’s commitment to education. And we promise to be with them for 17 years, from the first year of school to graduation from TAFE or university. The stories that our graduates tell us is that their individual worker was there with Mum in grade five, and she was there for them in year nine, and she was there in the second year of university. The graduates have been exposed to social and professional networks that they wouldn’t have had through their small world family. So interventions aimed to break the poverty cycle need to be targeted.

We are all about the fences at the top of the cliffs, not the ambulances at the bottom. Ours is a relatively light touch compared to intensive counselling services.  For just $1,000 per year to sponsor one student, we are undoubtedly preventing children from falling out of the education system, preventing them from not going to their local school every day, and preventing them from not fulfilling their life’s ambitions because they’ve missed out on education. That’s what’s exhilarating about Learning for Life. That’s a major win for those kids. It’s a major win for the nation too because it builds prosperity and the independence of people to be self-sufficient rather than them needing help from the state.

What are your thoughts on educational access for Indigenous Australians, in the context of  The Smith Family’s Girls at the Centre program?

20% Aboriginal of 56,000 Learning for Life students identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. And it’s really good that we’re accessible and connected, and partnering with families who have a commitment to education.

But it’s rugged in Australia, that there is that spike that needs to be addressed. This conversation that we’re having is all about overcoming barriers to participation. Australians are increasingly realizing the barriers for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. For  long term and best results  mutually respectful approaches are required. 

Learning for Life is a partnership – we do not ask people to put their hands up because they’re poor, we do not distribute money only when people bring us receipts. It’s a far more inclusive, empowering approach. And I think in terms of respecting Aboriginal guardians, who want the best for their children, Learning for Life is a part of the solution. 

In targeted programs, like Girls at the Centre, we acknowledge that in many cultures, and definitely in Aboriginal culture, women are the positive change agents. So if we help girls stay at school, not only will their lives be better, but their communities will be better too. It’s a curious anachronism that Australia has more funding, and more programs dedicated to Aboriginal males than it has for females. Having Girls at the Centre works in concert with other programs that happen to target males. That’s a double equity approach.

How does Learning for Life actually address disadvantaged children and families? And how do you select disadvantaged students from a disadvantaged area to join the program?

The need in Australia is informed by the fact that1.2 million children and young people live below the poverty line. So we’ve got a long way to go to address entrenched challenges in this nation. As I said earlier, Learning for Life is a relatively light touch. Its year-on-year and it’s very long-term, up to 17 years. It consists of three elements: a small parcel of funds for the families to choose how to spend on educational needs, including uniforms, books, and excursions; participation in programs like mentoring, digital literacy, numeracy, and written literacy; and a family partnership coordinator, who walks beside the family and is a go-to, particularly during the first year of school, last year of primary, the first year of secondary, and VCE. The demand for long-term support and navigation is so great that partnerships are essential all along the way. 

We also partner with schools in disadvantaged communities. The school will refer families facing challenges to us and we’ll do a basic assessment and interview. And if they can come on to the program, we will take them on. So we end up with a critical-mass of scholarships in partner schools: 110 partner schools across Victoria, anywhere between 50 to 300 scholarships per school, anywhere from 5% to 80%, saturation of scholarships into that school. Learning for Life is individually targeted, it’s not en masse, but when a school living with a very disadvantaged community gets that amount of support from us, it helps lift the entire community. 

We identify through data and statistics Australia’s disadvantaged communities – we are in some of Australia’s most disadvantaged schools. We know through our analysis that the bottom quintile of those school populations is coming on to Learning for Life, not the top. So we’re not inadvertently creaming the most capable students at disadvantaged schools. It’s good to identify for us at The Smith Family and for our sponsors and supporters, that our limited resources are going to the most vulnerable kids.

A lot of University of Melbourne students are likely to have come from privileged backgrounds. Is there anything you wanted to communicate to this audience about educational disadvantages that they might not be appreciating?

I think I’d say to the student population: “say yes, more often than no”. And by that, if that leads you to go to different geographic and different social and economic places, do it and be open-minded about where you’re going and who you’re interacting with. Also, never presume who people are. Jack Nasser was, for a time, the CEO of Ford internationally, that’s quite a big job. He grew up in Broadmeadows in pretty humble circumstances. I encourage people to never presume any entitlement and right to rule.  It’s better for one and all top  appreciate the passion and intelligence of those around us.

We hope you enjoyed reading through our interview with the Smith Family. If you would like to learn more or volunteer with them, you can visit their website

Stay tuned for more fascinating interviews with organisations across the public health space!

We would like to thank Anton Leschen and The Smith Family for their involvement in this interview.

The University of Melbourne has partnered with The Smith Family since 2012 to support children and young people living in disadvantage to remain engaged with schooling; and to access, participate in, and succeed in completing their university education. To achieve this, the collaboration supports the provision of financial scholarships and individual support as well as access to a range of programs such as Learning Clubs and Cadetship to Careers. The collaboration also facilitates opportunities to engage in research activities that may further strengthen our understanding of the educational needs of children and young people and inform future practice.  

*All identifying information has been modified to preserve student privacy.

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