Sharume Kepple is a busy woman. She works five days a week at the local grocery store in the remote Queensland town of Coen. She is also raising two young daughters. Sienna, her eldest, is four years old. She attends the local kindergarten, where she enjoys creating art and is mastering the fundamentals of writing. According to Sharume, this new grasp on learning has seen Sienna grow a little too big for her boots. “She thinks she knows everything now. She bosses me and her father ‘round the house,” she says with a grin. Sienna becomes aware that she’s become the topic of conversation, and bashfully tucks her smiling face into her mother’s shirt. Sharume’s youngest, Shiloh, is just two months old. “Whatever my daughters want to be in their future, we’re going to be there to support them. I know that means providing them with education opportunities.”
Like their mother before them, both Sienna and Shiloh are beneficiaries of the Student Education Trust product, or ‘SET’ for short. SET is one of the education-focused initiatives born out from the Cape York Partnership. The Opportunity Hubs, or O-Hubs, which are located in the four Cape York welfare reform communities, facilitate the product.
SET enables parents to deposit small but regular portions of their income into a locked trust account that is dedicated to their children’s education. The funds can then be withdrawn for routine or incidental expenses, such as school fees or new shoes. “Sienna goes through shoes fast! So it’s reassuring that the funds are already there and easy to access in her SET account,” says Sharume. “I don’t have to worry about not having enough money for unexpected costs. I just go and see my local O-Hub Coach-Consultant.”
Sharume attended a boarding high school in Cairns before returning to Coen in adulthood. She first visited Coen’s O-Hub in 2017 after Sienna was born, having heard of the SET product and deciding it was a sound decision for her daughter’s future. It was only then that Sharume realised that she’d had a SET account of her own – a senior family member contributed the funds for her high schooling. “I had no idea!” she exclaims, seeming surprised still to this day that a guardian angel had made her educational opportunities possible.
During that first visit, an O-Hub staff member indicated to Sharume that she still had a few hundred dollars remaining in her account, and could immediately transfer this total to Sienna’s new account as a starting deposit. Sharume agreed without hesitation. Since then, she has been able to pause and restart payments as her financial situation allows. This financial flexibility, an emphasis in the design of the SET product, is something that has been noticed by other community stakeholders, including the local school’s Head of Campus Ben Foran. “There’s a lot of agency here in Coen, and school parents seem quite comfortable with SET,” he says. “I like it because it is an avenue of support that does not also remove this sense of parental agency.”
The majority of Cape York children relocate for high schooling, which often includes a boarding arrangement in greater Queensland. In order to save enough money to ready themselves for these costs, SET contributors can come to an agreed fortnightly SET allotment that works for them. For example, a fortnightly contribution of $12 over the first 12 years of a child’s life is enough to significantly ease the financial burden of high school fees. At the very least, a SET savings goal can reduce the gap between total school fees and the amount of support that the Federal Government may supply through ABSTUDY loans.
Although there is some employment potential in Coen, full-time jobs are not readily available for all within the community. Budgeting skills, therefore, become crucial for local residents. With a prudent attitude, Sharume has already saved enough to be comfortable that she can meet Sienna’s future high-schooling fees. She has now shifted her budgeting attention to Shiloh. “I’d definitely recommend SET to other parents, especially younger parents,” she says. “I have family who are concerned about meeting their children’s education costs, so I told them to go see O-Hub staff straight away and make a SET account!