18 August, 2014

TAFE cuts: through the eyes of a family

By Rosie Scroggie

My eldest son completed VCE in 2012. At high school, he had vague ideas about becoming an architect like his grandfather, however I suspect this was because he thought it would be a bit like a more sophisticated version of playing with Lego. His real love was building “stuff” not buildings. He had made some beautiful furniture at high school, which I consider heirloom pieces so it made sense that he would follow through into something like architecture. With a modest ATAR, he didn’t get into the architecture course but still, with his heart set on this path, he enrolled in Architectural Drafting at NMIT Greensborough - a beautiful campus, literally just a few kilometres from home.

My son is quite an anxious young person and the thought of University was somewhat daunting for him so the availability of a course at NMIT so close to home was a godsend and he took to the course like a duck to water. He came home after orientation week, really excited and positive and continued throughout the year, doing well and planning for the future and exploring pathways into architecture. He mingled with students of all ages and really seemed to develop a mature approach to study which I had not seen in High School.

At the end of first year, the students received the news that NMIT Greensborough campus was closing its doors. Almost overnight I watched my son’s anxiety return as he and his friends wondered where they would be sent to finish their course, and indeed if there was even going to be a course for them to finish. Their collective anxiety was shared by many of their teachers who were not informed of plans for relocation and unable to reassure their students. He spoke of teachers “trying to put on a brave face” but apparently having no answers to give their students.

My son quickly learned not to share his concerns with his friends or comment on social media because the feedback from his university friends was largely unsupportive and comments like “it’s only TAFE” , “first world problems” and ”suck it up princess” loomed large on his Facebook account. Upon reflection I think it was a perfect storm – a combination of an anxious student, an uncertain future, lack of communication as well as the implicit message from the state government that “TAFE doesn’t really matter”.

The course was relocated to Epping. My anxious son was suddenly in an unfamiliar environment with a 2 hour commute and he started to struggle to get to his classes on time. Many of his fellow students began to drop out and as much as he tried, he really lost his momentum. His previous excitement and enthusiasm gave way to a growing apathy which culminated in him dropping out of the course towards the end of his second year.

He began to deteriorate before my eyes and over the next six months he became apathetic and depressed. For the first few weeks I was willing to accept his “needing some time to chill” but the weeks turned into months. As a mother, it was heartbreaking to see and as a mental health clinician, I became increasingly concerned about him. As well as my concern, I was becoming more angry and frustrated that I’d been busting my chops working really hard, getting up early and staying late only to find him sitting at his computer in his jocks after sleeping in until the mid-afternoon each day. Even greater was my anger towards the then Liberal Victorian State Government about the cuts to our TAFE system because I saw the first-hand what it did to my son and how a vulnerable young man was left demoralised and floundering.

The low mood and hopelessness went on for nearly six months. Encouragement gave way to pleading, which gave way to yelling and arguments. Then one April morning driving past Box Hill TAFE, I noticed a huge sign saying “ENROLMENTS CLOSE ON FRIDAY”. This was actually one of those amazing moments that I will always vividly recall because it was literally the answer to all my worries and concerns about my son. I came home from work, went into my son’s room where he was, as usual, sitting in his jocks at his computer and told him that tomorrow he was getting up early to come in to work with me. I’d head off to work and he was going to Box Hill TAFE. We were not going home until he had enrolled in a course. And it was not negotiable.

Box Hill Institute has some amazing courses but I honestly didn’t care what he chose to study as long as he had decided on a course by the end of the day. Even before he came over to the hospital to join me for lunch I received an excited text message “OMG Mum, they’ve got furniture making!”

Enrolment was incredibly quick and he started the following week. We started to carpool together and he’d tell me all about his day and all the pieces they were required to build, about how he was learning so many new techniques. He said he’d shown his teacher some photos of the furniture he had built in the past and the teacher was really impressed. It was an incredible load off my mind to see my son suddenly so happy and purposeful.

I believe it was not quite a month into his course that my son met me after work with the news that one of his teachers had recommended him for an apprenticeship. We all know the relationship between self-esteem and the feeling of being valued and productive. It’s hard to put into words actually seeing this relationship played out in reality. This was like the last piece of the jigsaw. Within a couple of weeks, he had commenced a cabinetmaking apprenticeship and he has been thriving. He has been working hard; he’s developed physical strength and technical skills. He has a sense of purpose and he is making plans for the future. He has a modest income as an apprentice but he sees it as “being paid to learn”.

And he’s going to build me a new kitchen.

One standout thing that absolutely amazed me and impressed me no end was the way TAFE looked after my son in assisting him to enter the workforce. My eldest son was offered an apprenticeship after he was recommended by one of his teachers. His confidence took a huge leap when he realised that his teachers actually recognised his work was good enough to put their own reputations on the line with their trade contacts. TAFE has a wealth of dedicated teachers who not only have the skills and expertise but the industry networks that can open so many doors for their graduates.

I want to thank and acknowledge TAFE teachers for their absolute dedication to your students, particularly in light of such a rocky and uncertain time facing cuts and closures.

TAFE teachers actually make a real difference to people’s lives. I’ve seen it first-hand.

Cathryn Fisher works in mental health, a proud Stop TAFE Cuts supporter and a mother of two

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