Young people and STEAM: Bridging the digital divide

Supporting vulnerable young people matters

Youth educational disengagement, underemployment, and unemployment come at a cost to the ACT community, both socially and economically. In recent years, the youth unemployment rate in the ACT has been steadily growing, with 11.4 per cent of 15-24 year olds unemployed at August 2015. This is more than double the overall unemployment rate for ACT (4.8 per cent). One in four people who experience homelessness in the ACT, and one in three at risk of becoming homeless, are aged 12 to 24.[1]

In ACT schools, children and young people experiencing poverty and social and educational disadvantage are often hidden or unacknowledged. In terms of educational outcomes, there is a persistent and widening gap for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds compared to those from more affluent families. The ACT is one of the most poorly performing jurisdictions when it comes to equity in educational outcomes for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.[2]

While schools struggle to support students who are disadvantaged and/or at-risk of disengagement, the lack of adequately resourced youth and community support services are having profound consequences for those who drop out of education. Almost half of all early school leavers find themselves on the margins of the labour force, either in part-time or casual jobs or out of work altogether. Some will face ongoing unemployment and will be more likely to suffer poorer health, experience social isolation, or even find themselves in trouble with the criminal justice system. These circumstances will adversely impact on their capacity to fully participate in society.

Young people who leave school early often experience complex and interconnected barriers to remaining in school, both within and beyond the school gate. These include learning disorders and underdeveloped literacy and numeracy skills, bullying, low self-esteem, family violence, and a combination of low-expectations and limited adult support. Difficulties beyond the school gate are often experienced as causal or compounding factors. Crucially, none are ‘pull’ factors; most students do not leave for greener pastures, but due to a lack of support.

A key factor that further exacerbates this issue is the inability for at-risk young people and their families to keep up with the increasing need to provide access to technology and the internet to meet contemporary educational demands. It is clear that the digital economy will dictate a vastly different set of roles, skills and knowledge from workers, to those of the past.

A 2015 report from the Foundation for Young Australians revealed troubling findings for today’s young people:

  • 70 per cent of young Australians are getting their first job in roles that will either look very different or not exist in the next 10-15 years
  • nearly 60 per cent of students (70 per cent in vocational education and training) are currently studying or training for occupations where two thirds of jobs will be automated
  • more than 50 per cent of jobs will require significant digital skills.[3]

The ability to use and access computers and the internet is vital to schooling and education generally, as well as participating effectively in the economy and many aspects of modern society.[4] Empirical research demonstrates that there is a growing and persistent digital divide between students of low and high socioeconomic backgrounds.[5][6]

Young people who don’t have access to technology while in school, then go on to suffer further disadvantage when attempting to enter the workforce. The Australian Workforce and Development Agency acknowledges that the shift to higher work skills necessitated by technology and international competition and economic opportunities, runs the risk of leaving the low skilled and unskilled behind. Young people, older workers, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and people with a disability are identified as being especially exposed to this risk.[7]

The current policy environment

The discontinuation of the nationally funded Youth Connections program at the end of 2014 has left a major gap in assisting young people to re-engage with education, training or employment. The Youth Connections program consistently delivered positive outcomes for young people in the ACT. It provided tailored case management for young people, taking into account their individual vulnerabilities and barriers to accessing education or employment opportunities.

The Program worked with around 350 young people in the ACT each year, and proved highly successful.[8] Six months after leaving the program, an average of 93 per cent of young people were still engaged in some kind of training, education or employment; after two years, 89 per cent remained engaged.[9]

Since Youth Connections ceased, there has been no comparable program implemented, placing young people who are disengaged, or at risk of disengaging, in an increasingly precarious position. Schools are not equipped to fill this gap, and there is a pressing need to invest in intensive programs modelled on the Youth Connections program.

In the ACT Government’s Digital Canberra Action Plan: 2014-2018, the Government commits to a vision where “all Canberrans can participate online, regardless of age, ability or economic status, where partnerships are established between government, business and the community to promote digital initiatives, and where digital skills are promoted throughout the community to bridge the digital divide.” Further, the report’s Guiding Principal 6: Social Inclusion states that the ACT Government will “work to address the digital divide by providing regular and effective access to digital technology, training and learning spaces.”[10]

However, in the ACT Government’s more recently released Digital Strategy 2016-19, it is unclear as to how these commitments have been carried forward, with no reference to addressing the digital divide, and inclusion themes focused on digitisation of service delivery, rather than enhancing access and education for vulnerable individuals.[11]

As 2019 looms, the ACT Government now has a narrow window of opportunity to act on these commitments to address the digital divide in the Territory.

Our role in supporting young people             

The Mura Lanyon Youth and Community Centre (MLYCC) plays an important role in the local community by providing myriad opportunities to engage in social, cultural, recreational and educational activities. Our MLYCC team is committed to promoting community self-determination, ownership and empowerment through different community development opportunities.

Our Youth Engagement team also deliver services on behalf of the ACT Government, working with vulnerable, at-risk young people in the Tuggeranong region. Programs run by our Youth Engagement team include the A-Z social support group for gender and sexuality diverse young people and allies, casework and outreach, the LGBTQIA + Allies Prom, a school holiday program, and an afternoon drop-in service.

YWCA Canberra also operates the YWCA Canberra Clubhouse (the Clubhouse), located at Richardson Primary School in the suburb of Richardson, which has the highest number of people in the ACT (24 per cent) who fall into the most disadvantaged 20 per cent of all 15-64 year old Australians.[12]

The Clubhouse Network is a global community of 100 Clubhouses in 19 countries, providing 25,000 young people with access to science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM) resources, skills, and experiences to help them succeed in their careers, contribute to their communities, and lead outstanding lives. The Clubhouse Network has a 25 year track record of successfully engaging young people to develop the skills, confidence and networks to pursue STEAM careers.[13]

The Clubhouse theory of change is that the Clubhouse learning model empowers vulnerable young people to become more capable, creative, and confident learners, therefore increasing their likelihood to finish school, and pursue further studies or careers in STEAM.

The Developing Youth: Highlight of the International Clubhouse Youth Impact Survey 2016 showed that:

  • 94 per cent plan to continue with their education after high school
  • 97 per cent of Alumni said the Clubhouse was the most important source of support for setting high goals and expectations for themselves
  • members have learned to use more technology (91 per cent), are more confident using technology (88 per cent), and use technology more often (84 per cent) as a result of the Clubhouse
  • 87 per cent of YWCA Canberra Clubhouse members who were surveyed said that the Clubhouse has increased their interest in studying some aspect of STEAM in the future.[14]

The YWCA Canberra Clubhouse 2016 Impact Report demonstrated that:

  • 90.5 per cent of members agreed with the statement “I know if I work hard enough I can solve almost any problem I have”
  • 76 per cent of members of members agreed that coming to the Clubhouse has made them feel happier in life and also that they felt they were an important member of the Clubhouse
  • 93 per cent of members say that continuing their education after high school is important or very important to them.[15]

Policy roadmap for action

It is imperative that the ACT Government takes action to ensure vulnerable and ‘at-risk’ young people receive the support and opportunities they desperately need to participate in the workforce of the future.

While the factors relating to the disengagement of young people are complex and interconnected, when provided with adequate learning, wellbeing and practical support, young people can flourish. A lack of resources and flexible learning options within the ACT education system means that many schools do not have the capacity to support students experiencing disadvantage to stay in school. These difficulties are compounded by the withdrawal of the Youth Connections program and the widening inequalities that exist within many ACT schools.

Out-of-school, community-based education spaces play a vital role in supporting vulnerable young people to stay in school. It is imperative that funding is allocated to programs that assist vulnerable young people and their families to access the internet and emerging technologies.

While in-school education is of the utmost importance, we know that many at-risk young people are alienated by traditional learning approaches. School-based education may also exclude young people already disengaged from education or dealing with difficulties such as bullying at school.

Therefore, it is critical that programs provide a holistic approach, are offered both inside and outside the school system, and work in partnership with community services beyond the
school setting.

Policy recommendations

That the ACT Government demonstrates its ongoing commitment to supporting young people by:That the ACT Government demonstrates its ongoing commitment to supporting young people by:

  • Prioritise funding in areas of need, particularly Tuggeranong and West Belconnen, including the extension of the Canberra Free Wifi to those areas.
  • Increase the digital literacy skills of disadvantaged young people in the ACT.
  • Partner with community based organisations around digital inclusion, as the most appropriate mechanism for reaching disadvantaged young people.
  • Feature digital inclusion as an overarching theme of the new Smart Cities Strategy, with specific targets and resources allocated to young people.
  • Equip young people with the knowledge and skills to be safe online.

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  1. Sawa, Mark, ‘More than a third of Canberra’s homeless aged 25 or under’, Canberra Times, 20 April 2015,
  2. Roberts, P, & Leonard, S, (2013). ‘PISA results show ACT schools fare poorly in teaching disadvantaged’. Canberra Times. accessed 5 October 2015,¬results¬show¬act¬schools¬fare-poorly¬in¬teaching¬disadvantaged¬20131209¬2z1xa.html
  3. Foundation for Young Australians, ‘The New Work Order: Ensuring Young Australians have skills and experience for the jobs of the future, not the past,’ 2015, p.2.
  4. Vinson, T et al (2015). Dropping off  the  Edge:  Persistent  communal  disadvantage  in  Australia 2015,
  5. Ritzhaupt, A., Liu, F., Dawson, K., Barron, A., (2013) “Differences in student information and communication technology literacy based on socioeconomic status ethnicity and gender evidence of a digital divide in Florida schools,” Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 45.4 Summer
  6. Marcoux, E., (2014) “Bridging the divide,” Teacher Librarian, 42.1 October
  7. Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency (2012). Australia’s skills and workforce development needs, July 2012,
  8. Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR), (2013). National Partnership on Youth Attainment and Transitions. Australian Capital Territory Annual Report.
  9. (2014). Senate Select Committee into the Abbott Government’s Budget Cuts: Interim Report. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.
  10. ACT Government, Digital Canberra: A Leading Digital City Action Plan 2014-2018, 2014
  11. ACT Government, Digital Strategy 2016-2019,
  12. ACT Government, Detecting Disadvantage in the ACT: Report on the comparative analysis of the SEIFI and SEIFA indexes of relative socio-economic disadvantage in the Australian Capital Territory, 2012
  13. The Clubhouse Network,
  14. Clubhouse Network, Developing Youth: Highlights of the International Clubhouse Youth Impact Survey, 2016,
  15. YWCA Canberra, YWCA Canberra Clubhouse Impact Report 2016,