School as a pathway towards equity: An interview with Doug Taylor from The Smith Family

November 1, 2023

The completion of school is a pathway out of poverty for many children and young people. Early intervention and engagement to support children experiencing disadvantage creates a sound platform for their future; everyday The Smith Family supports thousands of children and their families experiencing poverty to overcome barriers to education across Australia.

“This prevents children from falling behind their peers in key learning areas and supports a sense of belonging to a school community in a safe environment.

We spoke to Doug Taylor on how The Smith Family helps address inequity in education through valuable resources, school supplies and learning spaces for children experiencing disadvantage. This prevents children from falling behind their peers in key learning areas and supports a sense of belonging to a school community in a safe environment. 

Photo credit: The Smith Family    


What key areas does The Smith Family recognise as barriers to education for children experiencing disadvantage?

Education is one of the greatest agents for change. But disadvantage creates barriers that mean not everyone can make the most of their education.

The complex risk factors that lead to educational disadvantage can begin in a child’s early years and continue throughout their school lives. Despite the child’s effort and resilience, and the support of their parents and teachers, the impact can compound over the years.

“Education is one of the greatest agents for change. But disadvantage creates barriers that mean not everyone can make the most of their education.”

Children who miss out on core literacy and numeracy skills can struggle with the shift from learning to read, to reading to learn. This has a direct negative effect on their education, including a long-term impact on a child’s development and future career prospects.

One in four children in our most disadvantaged communities start school behind in key learning areas, such as literacy and numeracy.  And recent Grattan Institute research shows that children who start school behind are, on average, four years behind in maths and more than five years behind in reading by the time they reach Year 9.

The effect of poverty can limit their access to the essential resources all children need to support effective learning, including technology and digital tools. They may also be blocked from accessing the tools and networks that can help them set and achieve goals for life beyond the school gates.

“One in four children in our most disadvantaged communities start school behind in key learning areas, such as literacy and numeracy.”   

The latest NAPLAN results now show around a quarter of school students from low-socio economic backgrounds needed additional support in meeting minimum literacy and numeracy standards. First Nations students and students from regional and remote areas also fared particularly poorly among those being left behind by the system.

Children in low-income households also often miss out on things that young people themselves consider essential such as suitable clothes for school, a computer or mobile device, internet at home, extra-curricular activities at school and school excursions.

COVID-19 has highlighted and exacerbated the issues of poverty and its impact on education, particularly exposing the digital divide students living with disadvantage experienced during remote learning, which continues even now that students are back in the classroom.


Photo credit: The Smith Family     

What are some of the impacts that inequity has on children at school that The Smith Family supports as priority areas to overcome?

The Smith Family has identified a number of key areas where changes will make a significant difference to the educational outcomes of children experiencing disadvantage:

  1. We want an education system that ensures all young people are given equal opportunities to attain literacy, numeracy and digital literacy learning outcomes.
  2. Providing targeted support for students who fall behind. Our trials of the Catch-Up Learning program show two out of three students who receive targeted one-on-one or small group tutoring make much greater progress in numeracy and literacy than would otherwise be expected.
  3. We want a system that ensures students are future-ready for changing tertiary education and the labour market through the development of a national digital skills strategy. Digital skills are crucial for economic and social participation. This isn’t just about ensuring access to a device and reliable internet access, it also means technical and digital literacy support where it’s needed.
  4. We want parental and community engagement in education strengthened. Decades of research shows these are key to strong student outcomes, and better post-school pathways.
  5. As part of the National School Reform Agreement (NSRA) review that is currently underway, we are advocating for any changes to be supported by a more robust mechanism to support better outcomes for students.This includes incorporating:
  • an independent assessor
  • incentives for targets being achieved for low SES schools
  • public accountability measures for additional funds allocated to school systems and schools based on their equity students to ensure these funds are directed to improve the outcomes of these students
  • systematically investing in innovation and sharing evidence across jurisdictions to make data more accessible and transparent.
Photo credit: The Smith Family   


Childhood poverty can create significant barriers to receiving an education and achieving important learning milestones. How do we flip the script on our most disadvantaged schools to become hubs for communities?

Making schools hubs for communities is an important part of making our public education system more equitable.

Australian schools must be fully funded and for additional funding to go to those schools which have the highest number of disadvantaged students. This will better enable schools to attract and retain the best teachers, which we know are key to children’s learning outcomes.

Encouraging parents to be involved is vital. Decades of research shows parental engagement with their child’s education leads to better academic and social outcomes. Many parents, particularly in disadvantaged households do not have the confidence or the skills to help their children with school. So, programs to encourage parents to be involved in their children’s education are vital to support the child’s education.

“Encouraging parents to be involved is vital. Decades of research shows parental engagement with their child’s education leads to better academic and social outcomes.”

Additionally, engagement of schools with the wider community is also important, especially for schools serving students experiencing disadvantage. This engagement provides students with access to complementary learning opportunities, as well as role models and networks for life beyond school.

Enabling educational systems to work more effectively with other services in the community such as health, community services, NDIS and housing, will also have a direct and positive impact on students’ ability to achieve educationally.

How can access to resources tailored to each child’s needs enhance equity in schools for children with financial barriers?


The Smith Family works with over 760 partner schools in communities across Australia, providing long-term, targeted support to more than 60,000 students on our Learning for Life sponsorship program. Our work over many years has shown that stepping in with the right support at the right time increases a young person’s likelihood of staying at school, completing Year 12 and going on to further study or work.

The Smith Family Learning for Life coordinators work closely with students and their families to ensure they have access to the right support when it’s most effective.

The Smith Family’s learning programs begin at pre-school, with reading (Let’s Read) and numeracy (Let’s Count) programs that help parents integrate learning into their child’s daily life.

Photo credit: The Smith Family

At school, the student can go on to the Learning for Life sponsorship program. This program includes financial assistance, access to specialised educational and mentoring programs, such student2student (reading mentors), after-school Learning Clubs, SmArts, etc., and support through a Learning for Life coordinator.

As the student gets older, career education and interaction with the world of work become more important, particularly for students experiencing disadvantage, who may have limited access to resources and role models. Research shows that young people who can recall four or more encounters with the world of work, while at school, are far more likely to be in work, training or study in their 20s.

With funding from the Commonwealth Department of Education, students are able to participate in multiple career programs across their secondary school journey. These could encompass anything from a short career-focused activity, to several weeks of one-on-one mentoring via an online platform – or spending a few days in a workplace.

The Smith Family is seeking to gain a greater understanding of this transition from school to further study, training or work post-school through the Pathways, Engagement and Transitions study.

Under-pinning all of this is digital inclusion, which is for all education today. This doesn’t just mean having a device and access to reliable internet, it also means having the technological support and digital literacy to navigate the online world safely. This doesn’t just apply to students, it includes parents, so they can fully support their child’s education in all aspects. The Smith Family has implemented programs to help bridge the digital divide, which was highlighted by the COVID pandemic, with the goal of providing all families with students on the Learning for Life program with a device, internet access, technical support and digital literacy skills, by 2027.


Why are you attending the Bridging the Divide Summit and what can teachers gain from attending the Summit when it comes to working with children from disadvantaged backgrounds?


I’m looking forward to the Bridging the Divide Summit. There can be no more important area for reform today than education. It will be a great opportunity to bring leaders from across our sectors to identify the practices that will have the biggest positive and lasting impacts for students now and into the future.

“There can be no more important area for reform today than education.”

I always come away from forums like this having learnt so much as well as building new partnerships. Our work in the future requires us to work together in new and different ways and with colleagues that we have perhaps not partnered with to date. I’m particularly keen to hear their insights from teachers who are working with students who experience disadvantages. In my role, I make sure I’m closely listening to students, families and teachers and make the most of every opportunity to hear what they have to say.

The Smith Family CEO Doug Taylor is a key speaker at The Bridging the Divide Summit on equity in education.

Doug Taylor will feature in the breakout session: ‘Education as a way out of poverty.’ Learn more about other sessions by visiting the Summit website:    

It’s important to address education as a way out of poverty through supporting programs such as The Smith Family, which are able to assist students to stay on track and have a sound foundational education footing.

This support also ensures children can access the same school supplies as their peers, fostering belonging and essential digital literacy skills for their development to thrive in a community for education that is addressing disadvantage in key areas for inclusion.

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