There are 197 students at Lightning Reef Primary School but only 10 live in a home where a parent works.

This grim statistic reflects one of the many challenges faced by the small state school in Bendigo North.

The school is in a neighbourhood dominated by public housing and one-quarter of its students arrive at school hungry, cramming into the canteen for a state government-funded breakfast of cereal and toast.

The area is a hotspot for youth unemployment and according to the My School website, 84 per cent of children at Lightning Reef are from Australia’s most disadvantaged families.

Despite these hardships, the school is on a mission to improve its students’ futures.

Six years ago, it joined forces with Goldfields Local Learning and Employment Network and three other Bendigo primary schools to create a program intended to lift the aspirations of students.

“The hope was to educate our students on a working life, introduce them to employment options and let them know there are great reasons to stay at school and break that cycle of poverty,” principal Julie Hommelhoff said.

“We want students to have an aim when they leave secondary school. We want them to value education and know it can lead them anywhere.”

Twice a week during term three, grade 6 students in the Passions and Pathways program board buses that drop them off at more than 40 local businesses for work experience.

They rotate through three placements of their choice, tour businesses and receive school visits from young ambassadors and business representatives who speak about their jobs and how they got there.

Kayne Rutherford took part in the program last year and said it introduced him to jobs he’d never thought about before.

The 13-year-old worked alongside horticulturalists at Bendigo Botanic Gardens, inspected combat vehicles at defence contractor Thales and built huts with toddlers at a childcare centre.

“I learnt about what happened, I learnt what they did in different jobs,” he said.

The 13-year-old now wants to join the army.

While Kayne’s step-mother Donna Rutherford has worked in accounts for most of her adult life, his father has only recently secured his first full-time job as a panel beater’s assistant.

Mrs Rutherford, who sits on the school council, said she wants her children to know they can find a rewarding job.

“There are industries out there that they may not think of. I don’t want them to rely on the government for handouts. I want them to have that drive.”

She said waiting until Year 9 for work experience was too late.

“This program gives kids that extra insight, the push in the right direction,” she said.

Last week, the program received a $1.2 million boost from the Andrews government to help it expand to more schools over the next four years.

But the Country Education Partnership is calling for an even greater focus on rural and remote education ahead of the state election to lift the aspirations of students.

The organisation’s chief executive Phil Brown said rural and regional students had aspirations, but these were often restricted by their limited exposure to jobs and opportunities.

He spoke about a regional student who had a part-time job at a chemist and imagined working there for the rest of her life.

“It wasn’t until she took her father to Melbourne for physiotherapy that she realised that was what she wanted to do,” he said. “She is now studying physiotherapy.”

Universities have also been tackling the issue by forging links with local schools.

La Trobe University – which has regional campuses in Bendigo, Shepparton, Mildura and Albury Wodonga– runs programs that expose primary school students to science and literature, hosts camps and will soon unveil an initiative where primary students attend its campuses to improve their reading skills.

The university also leaves the lights switched on at its sports grounds to encourage the community to use them.

“We want to open up the university so that it’s not an ivory tower,” said Dr Joanna Barbousas, head of the university’s department of education.

“We want to demystify the university.”


This article originally appeared on The Age