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Opinion piece in The West Australian - Listen to concerns of young people

by Colin Pettit

Children and young people from across the state have shared their views on their wellbeing and how they feel about their community in WA’s first Speaking Out Survey – and their responses are a reflection of our community as a whole.

Almost 5,000 students from Years 4-12 have spoken out, and while there are many positives in their responses, where they have reported being safe and supported, having their material needs met and feel that they have a voice in decisions that impact them, a number of challenging issues have been raised.

I am particularly concerned at the number of children and young people who have indicated that mental health issues and perceptions of safety, both in the community and in the home, are impacting on their wellbeing.

Female students rated their wellbeing lower than male students and this was most evident in areas of mental health, their self-esteem, conflict, relationships, personal safety and independence. The gap between these female and male student perspectives widened with age.

It is my view that we need to look closely at how our girls perceive themselves within our society and what we can all do to address this. This is not something that I believe we can look to the government alone to change, but an issue we need to all reflect upon.

Many children and young people said they do not always feel safe at home, at school or in their community. Some high school students worry that someone in their family will be fighting, while only a quarter of female students reported feeling safe in their local area all of the time.

There are a range of reasons why children and young people may have responded this way, the challenge now is to better understand what is driving these perceptions. We also need to compare these responses to the data on children’s actual experiences of violence.

We need to remember that we asked children and young people to share their own views – there were no right and wrong answers – and we need to be prepared to listen to their responses.

This survey included a broad sample of students from government and non-government schools and the results have highlighted some key issues for the youngest quarter of our population.

The finding that one in ten WA children say there is not enough food for them at home is a stark reminder that we still have a long way to go in reducing childhood poverty.

The challenges Aboriginal children and young people continue to face are well documented, and those who took part in the survey fared less well than non-Aboriginal children in terms of material needs, family stability and expectations for the future. I am, however, heartened by the fact that Aboriginal students have reported high levels of self-esteem and a strong sense of belonging in their community.

There is a wealth of information in the responses to the survey, including a fascinating glimpse into the day-to-day lives of modern children – where mobile phones and internet use are the norm – across Perth and regional WA. They have told us that they care about eating healthy food, and the majority value spending time with their family every day.

My aim is that this inaugural Speaking Out Survey forms a baseline and we repeat this survey every three years, giving both a powerful platform for children to share their perspectives and an invaluable opportunity for government and non-government sectors to monitor trends and track how we are improving services and supports for children, young people and their families.

The findings from my Speaking Out Survey have been tabled in Parliament and are available through my website. I encourage all West Australians to look at the results and consider the role we all play in shaping the lives of our children and young people.

Published in The West Australian on page 22, 20 February 2020