I speak today about education and young people—I seem to find myself doing that quite a lot; it must be a passion of mine—and about the Beacon Foundation. I recently attended a Beacon Business Breakfast at one of my local high schools, Mount View High School. The business breakfast was the first step towards that school becoming another Beacon school. Three of the five high schools in my electorate are now Beacon schools. That is fantastic, because the cluster effect and the opportunity for schools to share resources and ideas is a great strength of the program. The Beacon Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation. It is quite young, having started in 1995. Since then it has worked in 180 secondary schools in every State of Australia and with more than 55,000 students.
The Beacon Foundation has a simple philosophy about what young people need to do: either earn or learn. It targets young people who might otherwise fall through the cracks, such as those of low socioeconomic status. In spite of that it has had some amazing results. The Beacon Foundation cites statistics that show the percentage of students who went on to year 11—this was when it was not compulsory to stay at school in years 11 and 12—was 90 per cent in Beacon schools when the average for all other schools was only 82 per cent. This is despite the fact that the students were of low socioeconomic status and faced challenging circumstances. That in itself is testimony to the success of the Beacon program.
The Beacon program is all about helping to inspire and motivate students to stay in school and increase their educational engagement and attainment or choose a positive pathway that enables successful transition to employment, further education and training. I was shocked and surprised to learn from listening to the speakers—particularly Dyan Thais, who heads the Central Coast and Hunter Beacon Foundation—that Australia has one of the highest rates of high school non-completion amongst OECD countries. Only 76 per cent of students who start year 7 will go on to complete year 12. Australia’s stated target is 90 per cent, and we will undoubtedly progress towards it quickly now that the leaving age for students has been lifted to 17. But before my Beacon experience I was completely unaware that Australia, with all its wealth and opportunity, had such a high rate of high school non-completion. Businesses from across the local community attended the Beacon Business Breakfast to show their support for young people and for the school.
When I spoke earlier in this House I made the oft-heard comment that it takes a village to raise a child. Community business involvement in the breakfasts shows students that they are important to future business success. Young people feel the impact of a tired or heavy labour market first, and when the labour market recovers they feel the effects last. We are living in fortunate times, with unemployment at less than 5 per cent—unemployment in the Hunter is less than 4 per cent—but that does not mean we can go easy. When addressing the Beacon breakfast at Mount View High School just two weeks ago I put this challenge to business leaders. When unemployment is as low as 4 per cent or 5 per cent it is important that businesses stay engaged with the Beacon process and seize the opportunity to recruit the cream of the crop—find the young people who really want to be involved in business.
It does not matter what the business is—a mining company, real estate agency, a hairdresser, retail outlet, electrical or other trade business—young people take an interest in a range of things, regardless of their background and their intelligence. Sometimes the smartest people want to pick up the tools and become an electrician or a plumber. Sometimes people without those smarts go on to university, work hard and study law or medicine. Fortunately in Australia most young people have the opportunity to do that. Three months ago I attended the Beacon Business Breakfast at Kurri Kurri High School. I was amazed to see the hundreds of people in the room that morning—community leaders, businesses, parents and young people. Importantly, both breakfasts were fully catered for by the students. They worked the room, making sure that everybody was well fed, that drinks were topped up and that everyone had a good time. That is an important step for students in building self-confidence and self-belief. I will soon find myself at Francis Greenway High School on another important Beacon journey.