Education for young mums

Rebecca Cupitt left her high school in country New South Wales in year 9 when she was 15. ‘I hung out with a crowd who thought it was a waste of time and I was easily influenced by my peers.’

Soon after Rebecca moved with her partner to Mildura. But her relationship was troubled and violent. At 17 she was pregnant, alone, and at risk of being homeless.

Mallee Accommodation Support Program found her somewhere to live and referred her to Zoe Support Australia, a not-for-profit, community-based organisation that assists young mums aged 13-25 through pregnancy, parenting, and re-engagement in education.

At 17 Rebecca was vulnerable and found social situations awkward. Even the informal setting of a playgroup with other young mums and children was daunting.

‘When I went along to the Zoe Support playgroup, I was uncomfortable because I didn’t look pregnant and most of them had a child and a purpose for being there. It took me about a month until I felt more relaxed but it was still overwhelming. But I got to know a few mums who had done courses and classes there and they recommended things to me.’

Catching up with literacy and numeracy

Rebecca made her way through a number of classes including a sewing class to make and sell items for local markets. Hospitality was where her heart was but after completing a course in it she realised that as a young mum that goal was unrealistic.

‘I realised it’s too difficult an area to work in with a small child so I had to move on and think about what I wanted to do apart from hospitality.’

Rebecca decided she wanted to finish high school.

‘I was very excited at the idea of studying again. But I was worried that since I’d been at school there’d been a lot of changes. I started going to Bridging Literacy and Numeracy at Zoe Support because I needed to catch up, particularly with computers and new technology.’

‘What I want my son Luke to know is that his mum is an example of how you can still make a difference, you can have a good life no matter what happened to you in the past.’ Rebecca Cupitt, age 20.

Preparing young mums for high school and work

Mildura is ranked the fifth most disadvantaged local government area in Victoria. It has a teenage birth rate that is over twice the Victorian average with 20.1 teenage pregnancies for every 1000 births.

Zoe Support offers family day care so young mums can participate in classes in retail and hospitality, healthy cooking, swim classes and general life skills as well as Bridging Literacy and Numeracy.

‘Pre-accredited courses like Bridging Literacy and Numeracy bridge the gap for young mums who aren’t ready for more formal study and it’s a way of building their confidence,’ Merinda Robertson, manager of Zoe Support says.

‘Most of the young mums involved with us haven’t finished high school. We have a number of secondary schools here in Mildura and the mums could put their children in our childcare centre and go to a school nearby. But we found that they didn’t want to attend a mainstream school. They found it overwhelming to walk through the gates and into a classroom and try to keep up and then go home afterwards and be a mum as well. It was too much. So we identified a gap in the education system.’

And the model is working. ‘62% of our young mum clients engage in pre-accredited or accredited courses. Sixteen per cent have completed an accredited certificate while engaged at Zoe Support and gone on to further study or employment. And 35% of our young mums are employed which is up from 9% 18 months ago,’ Merinda says.

Merinda says the success of the Bridging Literacy and Numeracy class is down to the tutor. ‘She’s fantastic and she engages so well with the young mums and they really respond to her. You have to have a good connection between the teacher and the students. She understands what they’re going through.’

From writing resumes to essays

Tutor Paula Robinson has run Bridging Literacy and Numeracy at Zoe Support for the past 3 years after a long and varied career in education from secondary maths and science teacher to TAFE and community education.

Young women attend class for as long as it’s helpful. ‘It’s very open ended. Some of the girls have very low literacy and numeracy, others use the class as a stepping stone.’

Paula says catering to young women from a wide range of backgrounds and abilities requires a lot of preparation and flexibility.

‘It can be tremendously challenging because I never know who will turn up from week to week. One week last year I had 16 mums in a class and while their older children were in childcare, some of the mums were breastfeeding so there were prams and babies on top of that. We were all crowded into a small room.

I have to have something for everyone to work on. One might be writing a resume and an application for part-time work another might be practising long multiplication or learning how to write an essay. I tailor the material to each girl, and I also work with them on goal setting, coaching them through the process of thinking about where they want to go and what steps they need to take to get there. So developing their skills in thinking, speaking and writing – these are all literacy exercises.’

The most important thing she teaches is the confidence to have a go, Paula says. And the results are incredibly rewarding.

‘I see big changes in them. There are the girls who sit there with their hair down over their faces and their arms crossed who are obviously very unsure of themselves and over time you watch them open up, tie their hair back and sit up straight and start offering answers to questions out loud instead of sitting there not saying anything. It’s an incredible process and it’s because we work to their strengths.’

‘Zoe Support also changed my whole view of young mums. The young women at Zoe Support are a very diverse group. We all have different stories and different reasons for being there and listening to those stories is absolutely amazing.’ Rebecca Cupitt, age 20.

Busting myths about young mums

Since completing her CGEA at SuniTAFE, Rebecca has completed a Certificate IV in Community Services/Mental Health and has just finished her first year of a Bachelor in Human Services/Masters of Social Work at Latrobe University.

Rebecca says she’s changed enormously as a person and a parent thanks to Zoe Support. ‘Returning to study gave me a purpose and I wanted my son to see that maybe I was a young mum but I had taken the opportunity to study and do better for myself. I am very motivated and very ambitious now.’

She takes every opportunity she can to bust myths about young mothers. ‘My conversations these days are very political. There are lot of negative attitudes to young mums out there. You get a lot of stares if you are a teenager with a pregnant belly or pushing a pram. People look at you and think you’ve dropped out of school, you’re not doing anything with your life, you’re living off Centrelink. If I feel I’m being judged that way I challenge people on it.’

About Learn Locals

Zoe Support Australia is a registered Learn Local (LL) provider. Learn Local providers in Victoria offer a range of education and training programs including government-funded pre-accredited learning programs, short modular courses that are designed to create pathways for adults to further education or employment.Zoe Support was recently awarded a grant from the Readings Foundation to purchase five new computers for use in the Bridging Literacy and Numeracy class.

See the full issue of Quest 1, 2020

 

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