Kiarra Peters, Jaymie Wood and Shakea Rentmeester have looked beyond mainstream schooling for education in the ACT.Jaymie Wood admits it got to her. The name-calling. The nasty looks. She used to sit in her school’s sandpit and cry, or feign illness in the sick bay. Sometimes she’d run home. In the end, she felt it was easiest to stop going to school.

“I told my teachers everything and they’d go ‘There’s nothing we can do, you’re going to have to buck up and deal with it’,” she said.

The now 15 year old would skip school for three days a week, and when she was in class she struggled to concentrate.

She missed almost all of year seven. It had a “massive” impact on her learning.

“It gets to you. You go ‘You know what, I’m tough’, but it really does get to you,” she said.

Jaymie Wood, 15 stopped going to school after years of bullying, and now is completing her year 10 studies at CIT. Photo: Jamila Toderas

About 93 per cent of Canberra’s year one to 10 students attend school – leaving a fair portion, about 3000 children, who miss a substantial chunk of class time. For Indigenous students, the number drops to an attendance rate of 86.5 per cent.

The figures are among the best but mask one of the most inequitable education systems in Australia. The ACT’s Auditor-General, Victoria University expert Stephen Lamb and the Australia Institute have this year published separate scathing reports pointing out the achievement gap between Canberra’s rich and poor students. This month, the Australian National University published research that found ACT schools were failing to improve the results of Indigenous children at the rate of other states.

The University of Canberra’s Philip Roberts says Canberra schools aren’t doing enough to help the children falling through the gaps.

“The system assumes the average kid who’s enrolled in a school is going to turn up and try their best and their parents want them to get there, and that’s not always the case,” Dr Roberts said.

“Their parents don’t ask questions like the teacher does, they don’t read the novels that the teacher assumes, they haven’t been to the places that the teacher’s talking about. Then they’re sort of like, where do I fit here?”

Shakea Rentmeester, 15, started going to Galilee School after issues with mainstream public schooling. Photo: Jamila Toderas

Shakea Rentmeester was a student who felt she didn’t fit. Her teachers called her a “druggo” and told her she wouldn’t amount to anything. She struggled to understand her classwork. From year seven to nine, instead of attending lessons, Shakea would sit at the shops and smoke or hang out with her friends.

“If you’re not a good student they don’t really treat you the best,” the 15-year-old said.

Shakea is now finishing year nine at the Galilee School. The [email protected] specialist school has a whatever-it-takes attitude: classes start later, lessons are shorter and workers take vans to pick students up each morning.

Principal Tim McNevin is hesitant to make generalisations about the 30-odd students across Galilee’s Kambah and Holder campuses, but says many have missed substantial school time and live with cognitive trauma. Students are met at their level, he said.

“The sort of phrase I sometime throw out there is traditional school, some of these young people it’s a square peg into a round hole,” he said.

“We provide a square hole so they can be who they are and we can meet them where they are and put them on a journey to success.”

It works.

Kiarra Peters, 16, attends Galilee School. Photo: Jamila Toderas

Sixteen-year-old Kiarra Peters is a Galilee student pleased to be learning again. She stopped going to school between year seven and nine after her teachers told her she wouldn’t amount to anything.

“I was nervous [about going back to school] but it was the best thing for me,” she said.

Education Minister Yvette Berry says she’s keenly aware that mainstream schools as they’re run now aren’t a good fit for everyone. Analysis by public school lobby group Save Our Schools found the ACT was beaten only by the Northern Territory when it came to the link between socioeconomic status and achievement in international testing.

Expert after expert has agreed there’s no reason this should be the case given the ACT’s small size and high education spending.

Perhaps indicating an appetite for change, more than 2000 Canberrans have made a submission to the ACT government’s half-a-million dollar, two-year Future of Education project, a community conversation aimed at reducing inequity in education.

“All the themes we’re hearing back from the conversation so far is kids want to have their individual goals and aspirations recognised,” Ms Berry said.

“Yes, they want to be challenged and they want to learn, but they also want to do the things that they’re passionate about as well, so they want a school environment and a learning environment that provides that chance.”

But it’s not the first time the ACT government has examined why children from certain backgrounds fare so badly in Canberra’s education system. A 2010 inquiry into the educational achievement gap made 24 recommendations, but questions asked byThe Canberra Timesthis year on which directives were followed and a request for progress reports weren’t answered.

Dr Roberts acknowledged the need for a system-wide overhaul, but said the community had a role to play in getting children to school and achieving.

“For kids on the margins, a school can have high expectations and try to support them and encourage them, but if they’re worried about food and who’s going to live where and stuff like that, that’s all beyond the school,” he said.

“Schools aren’t trained to address a lot of these needs, but the community services, if they can come around and work with the whole school, that’s where it makes a difference.

“Higher attendance [means] higher achievement, more secure work, higher income, better health, and the opposite’s true in the other direction.

“I think it’s really important for us to focus on the needs of kids who are struggling and to provide pathways for success for them, but we’ve got to make sure that’s an inclusive pathway that starts with the kids and doesn’t start with our expectations.”

Ms Berry agreed. She asked that the community trust her to make changes based on her willingness to listen and emphasised her belief in fostering every student’s talents.

“If you’re a kid in a school who’s not so great at maths or science but you’re an amazing athlete, then yes, we should continue to challenge around maths and English, but also then what’s the pathway for that particular child if they want to be an athlete of some sort, or a musician or a fashion designer or whatever the hell they want to be – an early childhood educator, a cleaner, who cares,” she said.

“What is it that you want to be and how can a personalised learning plan support you to get there?”

Shakea isn’t sure what she wants to do when she finishes year 10 – something in beauty, youth work, or the automotive industry. Kiarra wants to be a beauty therapist. Jaymie, enrolled in year 10 with the Canberra Institute of Technology after working with PCYC, one day hopes to work with horses.

Each girl wants to finish school and wants to achieve.

“I want a job and stuff,” Jaymie said.

“I don’t want the people around me to go ‘Oh, it’s a shame she went to waste’.”