How a small city slashed homelessness, boosted school results and became a model for the world
If you want to see how evaluation makes a difference, it’s time to have a look at what has been achieved in Geelong.
In Victoria’s second-largest city, a joint effort by schools, a not-for-profit, a university, a youth agency, and an employment network has recorded stunning results in slashing youth homelessness, while boosting school retention rates.
Rigorously-checked figures demonstrate that youth homelessness has plummeted by 40 per cent in just three years thanks to The Geelong Project, as it’s been dubbed. The number of early school leavers at the three pilot schools dropped 20 per cent, and disengagement levels by those most at-risk kids dropped by 50 per cent.
As community development organisations get wind of the results, regional cities across Australia are looking to replicate the Community of Schools and Services (COSS) model of early intervention.
The project has been led by the independent, not-for-profit community service organisation Barwon Child, Youth & Family (BCYF), with the close involvement of Swinburne University; Headspace Geelong; the Geelong Region Local Learning and Employment Network (LLEN); and three pilot schools – Northern Bay Secondary College, Newcomb Secondary School and Geelong High School.
Begun with research funding at Swinburne in 2011, the project won an Innovation Action Project seed grant of $1.2m from the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to develop The Geelong Project model as a “whole of community early intervention innovation project”.
In February 2018, an interim report released on the impressive project outlined its achievements, which in turn was supported through a $300,000 grant from the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation (LMCF).
The foundation provided funds for a longitudinal outcomes evaluation under its major innovations grants scheme. There’s a link to the full interim report at the end of this article.
The results they've been able to achieve are astonishing, and it was no surprise to see the project splashed across news services at the release of a detailed interim report demonstrating the work they've already accomplished.
Swinburne University Associate Professor David MacKenzie, who authored the 62-page interim report, described the project as "fanatically focused on outcomes".
The power of a community coalition
Drawing on past studies connecting family and home life with school performance, the trio of schools and agencies - guided by an executive governance team - used an early intervention model to create a "community of action, a coalition".
Professor MacKenzie says the group was united by a sense of community, location and vision, and all focused on one question: "What can we actually achieve for these young people?"
"That's been quite difficult, because we were not just one little program working with 50 kids. We're taking a whole of Geelong approach, and we're working intensively in the three most disadvantaged schools.
"The logic of the model is twofold.
"One is to reduce homelessness (because of) family breakdown leading to kids leaving home too early. The other contention is that behind the educational disadvantage, a major part of it comes from the family you're born into it."
He says factors at play could include whether your parents finished high school, what's going on in the family, domestic violence, and the fact that you're poor, all of which can "shape your aspirations".
"We do something about that in the Geelong model."
"We want kids to stay on at school, or if they leave school, we want them to stay in education and get the equivalent of Year 12."
He says the results are nothing short of "extraordinary", but "it's proved with official statistics, not contrived in any sort of soft measure".
Homelessness, disadvantage needs a joint approach
He says the work of The Geelong Project is rightly a model worth pursuing, if only to tackle the twin issues of youth disadvantage and homelessness.
"One in four young people do not finish Year 12. Some of them recover their education but about 15 percent never do and may face lifelong disadvantage."
To put these percentages in context, 41,000 young people experience homelessness and go to homelessness services in Australia each year.
"We really need to face the challenge of what do we do to help our young people these days. What do we need to do? What do communities need to do?"
He says what's made the COSS model effective is "deep collaboration to change the local service system".
"So, identifying problems early, responding in a different way, having a very strong commitment to outcomes - that's very different from the existing service system. And if we're honest, many of our existing programs are nowhere near working well enough."
"There's a saying that it takes a village to raise a child. And it takes a whole community effort to end youth homelessness and to make a difference around early school leaving. What I think the model has achieved is … I believe an absolute first in this country or anywhere else."
Getting the ear of government, funders
Several jurisdictions in Australia and overseas are showing interest in the collaboration model, with the Victorian Government's Treasury already considering an expansion of the project into other regions.
There's also serious interest from Canada and the United States, with representatives of the project expected to meet with authorities and foundations there soon.
Part of the appeal is the desire by authorities to reduce the cost of homelessness, with a separate study showing that the 41,000 homeless young people cost the health and justice system $629 million annually - and that's not including the $621 million spent on providing homeless services.
"Not only should we make a difference in the lives of families and young people that need our support and our help, but we're actually doing some good in terms of the community's finances as well. Early intervention saves money. I think what the Geelong Project has shown is that you can make a real difference if you're prepared to reform the local service system."
Professor MacKenzie is enthusiastic about the potential for the collaborative approach to be adopted elsewhere. And while he accepts that regional cities have some advantages in terms of having a distinct sense of community that drives cooperation, he believes there is nothing about the model that is unique to Geelong.
"All of its component parts, if you're prepared to take on the challenge of reform, can be reproduced and we are now doing that. So hopefully, in the future, it could become a systemic change that would make an enormous difference."
Collective decision-making and strong leadership crucial
Some of the key components of the COSS model have been a commitment to community development, strong leadership and vision, a clear governance model that enables shared decision-making, a "whole of population" screening process, and accepting that significant changes to processes, work practices and more can take time.
"I believe that people only come together if they have got some sort of niggling critique that things are not as good as they should be. I think in just about every community I've ever gone to speak to or been involved in, there are such people."
He says that the group must be "prepared to create a coalition of people with a stake in the problem and work through that process with a faciliatory form of leadership".
Also essential is ensuring that collaborators "make decisions together". In the case of The Geelong Project, that role fell to an "executive governance group", which made all the key policy decisions.
Cutting back on competition
Geelong, as a small regional city, has seen "friction" between organisations competing for limited funds in the past, but Associate Professor MacKenzie says competition has been reduced by the collaborative forces at play.
"Now that we've got a … community collective, that problem is less of a problem, because the collective says, 'We're going to go for this funding. Which is the appropriate organisation or subgroup to actually go for that particular funding?'
"A lot of that competitiveness has been deflated by the fact that we're much more a collective, acting for the whole of the community, but in different ways."
He says organisations usually "co-operate at least as much as they compete", but says this is particularly true in regional communities, which often have "a lot greater reason to work together".
He has witnessed a trend here, saying, "The more collaborative you become, the stronger the collective becomes, and the less that competition … seems to occur."
Partners aligned for greater impact
The CEO of the lead agency, Barwon Child, Youth & Family, says the joint project has reinforced the agency's vision of "a community where people are safe, connected and empowered to live well."
CEO Sandy Morrison said the design principles underpinning The Geelong Project were aligned to BCYF's vision, yet could also be adapted to other social problems and local communities.
One of the strengths of the program was that it "borrows from existing evidence-based practice", with key features being early intervention and a thorough understanding of the problems to be addressed.
"Fundamental to this is the use of a collective impact methodology with a focus on co-design, client input and strong cross-sector partnerships," Mr Morrison says.
"We know that we have a much better chance of reducing adverse outcomes for our clients when we intervene early. The Geelong Project is a shining example of a local community project supported by strong leaders with a collective vision to build integrated, timely and flexible responses, so that young people have the best opportunity for good life outcomes."
Top lessons from The Geelong Project for would-be collaborators
Significant factors that have led to The Geelong Project's success include good governance and decision-making models; a shared vision and goals; and strong leadership that facilitates co-operation rather than a top-down "transactional" style in which a dominant player directs all the activity, Professor MacKenzie says.
His report also spells out a series of key considerations and lessons for would-be collaborators, albeit focused on its COSS model. They include these:
- Shared information
- Making joint decisions
- Regularly consulting and conferring
- Participating in cross-sectoral bodies for joint work
- Starting small, then growing a program
- Understanding the need for future development (of the program)
- The need to push for simpler funding models that support this style of collaborative work
- Changing practices will be a crucial challenge
- Understanding a common vision shared by all participating stakeholders takes time
- Getting a common data system to work requires training and experience
- Building a community of service requires a realistic catchment
- Try to use local areas services that are already well established
- Build community partnerships and a community consortium, not just a distinct single program or set of programs that changes little else systemically
- Training and development programs are critical, and may involve online training, professional training across sectors, a community of practice, and conferences to cement a sense of "collective impact".
The Geelong Project case studies: Bernadette, Belinda and Bree
Mediation, counselling smooths troubles for Bernadette
Everyone knew Bernadette, 14, was at risk of homelessness and dropping out.
The Australian Index of Adolescent Development (AIAD) indicators rated her 8/10 for the risk of homelessness, and 17/25 for disengagement.
At home there'd been battles with her mum, Sally, about house rules and chores, as she battled to cope with the recent death of her father.
At school she was disruptive: fighting with peers and refusing to follow teachers' instructions.
But worst was the fact she'd begun to commit self harm amid mental health concerns.
The Geelong Project's response included help for her mum, with family mediation creating a big improvement at home.
Headspace helped Bernadette with counselling for both grief and the self-harming behaviour, which in turn saw a significant impact on the disruptive behaviour at school.
Crisis care kept Belinda in the classroom
Belinda, 15, came to the attention of the school's wellbeing officer just before the school holidays because of major family conflicts and suspected domestic violence.
A project worker met Belinda's mum, Julie, who revealed "significant safety issues with her partner including monitoring the time that mother and daughter spent in the shower; monitoring electricity use; not allowing phones to be charged; both mother and daughter feeling that they had to leave the house during the day because they are too scared to touch anything."
The worker learnt Belinda had been a victim of violence, but her mother's own stress and having suffered abuse meant her ability to help was limited.
Child protection authorities were notified, but The Geelong Project's own workers provided the support, organising for Belinda and Julie to move into crisis accommodation with the help of the Barwon Centre Against Sexual Assault (CASA) and the Salvation Army, and a safety plan was enacted for both mother and daughter.
Belinda stayed at school.
Projects helps tame troubles for Bree
Bree, 18, an Indigenous woman, had just enrolled at a Geelong school when her case came to the school's attention.
Having suffered sexual abuse at the hands of another family member, she faced a difficult and chaotic situation. She had struggled with her existing supported accommodation and had no income.
The Geelong Project's team were able to set up Centrelink payments, help with a budget to secure her accommodation, and provide counselling and mediation to assist her in controlling "outbursts" and poor stress reactions, as well as to deal with bullying and alcohol. CASA helped with sexual abuse counselling and helped her to tackle her high-risk sexual behaviour.
Bree is still in school, where she is involved in a vocational stream, and attends weekly meetings to keep her on track to greater independence.