THIS is Shaunica Lee Cheu from my home town. She is now a Year 10 student at St Patrick’s, a Catholic girls boarding college in Townsville. The photograph was taken last December when she took possession of her new laptop computer paid for by her mother, Marcella, and her grandmother. When daughter, mother and grandmother received their new package, the moment brought a flood of unexpected emotions, and they sat together crying in the public square at Hope Vale.

The Lee Cheus are a small single-parent family and poor. Two years ago Marcella signed her daughter up for a savings account with the Student Education Trust scheme operated by the Cairns-based welfare reform organisation that I work with, Cape York Partnerships.

SET accounts operate in welfare reform communities in Cape York Peninsula. Contributions are made by families on a voluntary basis into a trust account that is designated for education. A trustee oversees the accounts and there is a process for families to use their saved funds to pay for items such as books, uniforms, school excursions, sporting goods, educational toys and so on.

Across four communities there are 600 active accounts, with more than $1.2 million saved. At any time each account will have about $1000 available for parents to cover the costs of their children attending primary school or, like Shaunica, attending secondary school down south.

We started SET accounts in the small township of Coen six years ago. Every student, including those at high school, soon had an account. Expecting parents started establishing accounts. By the time kids start school they have thousands in their account.

The accounts showed even families on welfare could ensure their children’s educational needs were met. Parents no longer had to scrounge for money when needed and their students did not have to go without.

The take-up of this voluntary facility has been astonishing. When more than $4000 of books and educational toys are sold at a book fair in a community with 50 students, the benefits are plain. Homes that never had books, have books for children. The scheme continues to grow and Cape York Partnerships constantly organises better deals for educational products for families. Many students have surplus funds at the end of Year 12. Graduation dresses have been paid for out of these accounts.

One graduate, Mabel, works with Cape York Partnerships and was able to use her surplus to put up a bond on her rental unit in Cairns. A young girl from a remote community is embarking on study in the city, where she has the opportunity of a job.

Another student, Shonae, a scholarship student at the prestigious Stuartholme College in Brisbane, will travel with an Antipodeans Abroad expedition this month, thanks to her mother and grandmother contributing to her SET account when she was at primary school in Coen. She and her classmates have been fundraising to help build a school in Cuzco, Peru, and they have been scrambling to learn Spanish. Shonae will have the experience of helping fellow indigenous people living in deep poverty.

We have learned three things from this simple program.

First, the need for parental and community engagement in education is a universal policy goal, particularly with disadvantaged communities. The work of Cape York Partnerships in social innovation in the past decade has demonstrated that if disadvantaged families are given the means to make better provision for their children and themselves, they will do so.

Engagement is not just about involvement, sharing information and building good relationships between schools and communities. Families have to be given opportunities to make practical changes for the better. By all means, let’s have the talk, but then let’s do the budget. Let’s work out what your family needs, then see how it might just be possible to provide for it.

Low-income people are amazed at how the steady allocation of small amounts of money can allow them to achieve their goals. And when it comes to engaging families to make provision for their children, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. You just have to give the people who love the children the means to demonstrate their love.

When contemplating our school reforms I thought Aurukun would be our toughest place. I thought parents’ lack of interest in their children’s education would be a challenge in one of Queensland’s most disadvantaged schools. But then the people promoting SET started telling me how many families were signing up.

Their readiness to provide for their children knocked me over. It reinforced that families just need opportunities to support their children in tangible ways. If you want parental engagement in children’s futures, my starting place is to work with them to ensure their children have shoes, uniforms and tuckshop money.

My second point flows from the first. Families do not just buy into a financial solution for a child, they buy into hope for her future. The act of establishing an account and making regular contributions is an investment. Anybody else can be a surrogate investor, but there is something more profound when those most important to a child feel they are investing in their child’s future.

Too often the welfare state wants to remove basic responsibilities from parents like those who hold SET accounts. In the past decade Cape York Partnerships has upheld the principle that important responsibilities can and should be given to families, even those on welfare. Yes, there are limits to what low-income people can afford, but basic educational investments are within the reach of families if they are supported to manage their money.

My third point is to contrast what Shaunica’s family, and 25 other families, did last year to enable their high school students to have laptop computers, with the federal government’s laptop scheme. Kevin Rudd’s “toolbox of the future” program has been beset with problems. The opposition highlighted controversies about whether parents were going to be levied by schools to pay for maintenance and whether students could take computers home.

This program was poorly conceived. The goal of comprehensive computer access for high school students was right, but it should have been done on a matching subsidy basis. Families should have been required to put in some of their money and be responsible for maintenance costs. They could then own the computer and the kids could take them home. Income-earning families could have been subsidised through a rebate and welfare families could have been assisted through SET-style facilities.

SET-style facilities could form the basis for solutions to school uniforms and other costs that another federal program is aimed at. Instead, all these programs have been conceived on the basis of a 100 per cent handout.

Marcella is an old schoolmate of mine and we lived four doors apart in the back street of the mission. She and I were selected one Christmas to go on the Harold Blair Bush Children’s holiday program to Melbourne, where we were billeted with kind families who gave us a Christmas we had never before experienced. Marcella’s Aunt Sandra, from Palm Island, was a community teacher and I vividly recall one day in Grade 2 that she spoke approvingly of how she had heard my siblings and me singing songs in Guugu Yimidhirr with our father at night. Her commendation struck a chord and stayed with me. I first understood that what we learned at home was also important.

Marcella has had a harder life than me. My schoolmate’s life trajectory has been typical for too many of our people. She lost her mother when we were in school together. Tragedy and deprivation have been her lot, but she has striven to be a good mother to her boys and Shaunica. Marcella has keen hopes for Shaunica to have a happier future and she is making an investment in that hope.

READ: The Australian