Alumna Leanne McLean (BSc 2000), Tasmania’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, reflects upon her own transformative educational experience, which saw her leave her home in the deep south of the island to study at a large public high school in Hobart. It opened her eyes to the learning opportunities that lay beyond year 10. Now she is working at the coal face with young people to help them shape their future and our island’s.
What inspired you to study a Bachelor of Science?
“I was interested in the world around us and how it worked. That, coupled with the fact that I really didn't know what I wanted to do, meant that a straight science degree was a good option to keep me learning. I knew that I needed to stay at school and I enjoyed learning. I was really interested in environmental management and Tasmanian forests and so I launched into a Bachelor of Science with a Plant Science major.”
Were you the first member of your family to attend university or were you forging a new path?
“I was the first in my immediate family to attend university and almost the first in my extended family. I grew up in a very small corner of Tasmania called Police Point, which is in the deep south, near Dover. I went to Geeveston District High School. For secondary school (years 7-10), my parents decided that it would be good to give my sister and I the opportunity to come to school in Hobart. A private school wasn't an option for us. But we were lucky to be able to go to Ogilvie High School, a public school with a boarding house. That is really when my aspirations around education changed. I realised that school doesn’t end in year 10 when you get a job and that there was quite a bit beyond year 10, including university.”
“You have spoken about your belief that education can transform lives and the importance of engaging children in high-quality learning opportunities, it sounds in some respects, you can draw on your own experience?”
It has been my direct experience. I went off to boarding school when I was 12 and it changed my life trajectory. It wasn’t the easiest path. When I decided to continue education beyond year 10, I no longer wanted to board and so I travelled from Dover to Hobart College each day. I caught a bus, the round trip equalled three hours a day. The bus driver was amazing. He would allow you to keep a pillow on the bus, so you could rest on the way down and the way back. Eventually my parents helped me with a car and that made life a bit easier.
At that time in rural Tasmania, going beyond year 10 was not seen as essential. I reflect on this quite a bit and I think that had I not been given the opportunities of going to Ogilvie High School, I would not have seen the possibilities of studying year 11 and 12 and beyond that, university. It’s not just about the educational pathway, it’s the friendships and social development that occurs. For me, part of that was that all of my friends were going to university.” Thankfully, things are very different now and studying to year 12, no matter where you live, is now normal.
How did your career unfold after leaving University?
“I always had an interest in plants and Tasmania has a unique ecological environment. I started my early career as a botanist assessing the special value of Tasmanian forests. Unfortunately, it was forests before they were set to be logged. In the end, I decided I didn't want to do that anymore.
I began applying my technical and scientific skills in the salmon industry, which had just arrived in the deep south. After that I decided I wanted to work more with people, so I began working in aged care. Then an opportunity arose as part of a government scheme that encouraged more young people to study beyond year 12. I had really good connections in the community and I was still living in the deep south, so I was asked to fill in as the local youth learning officer. I absolutely loved it and I ended up staying there for quite a few years. From there my passion for education as a transformative tool, coupled with my own experience, really took off. I worked in policy roles around various parts of the education and training system, including senior executive and government advisory roles”
What advice would you give to recent graduates who are starting out in their career?
“I’ve had an organic career path. I always followed my interest, and I've taken up opportunities as they have arisen and that has served me really well. When I speak to young people, I tell them not to worry if they don’t have a plan, I’ve never had one. Instead, I've been very open to opportunities and learning. I see many young people racked with concern and anxiety about what it is that they're going to do.”
How has your experience as a parent influenced how you engage with young people and children in your current role, if at all?
“It has had an enormous influence, and it's a huge benefit. There are some things about it that make it hard. As you guide and walk alongside your children, you can't help but feel an immense sense of obligation to make life as great for them as you possibly can and for every other child in Tasmania. I carry that with me every day. I think the other side of that is that as a parent you feel things deeply. You can contextualise it in your own experience and sometimes that is hard, but that is no different for anybody working in and around children. I’m not any different or special in that regard.”
How did growing up in a remote part of Tasmania shape you personally and professionally?
“I think an ability to communicate and develop relationships with people has probably been one of the things that has stood me well throughout my career. The program that I've run since being the Commissioner, the CCYP Ambassador Program, incorporates children from all around the state, including very rural and country areas. What we hear from children in rural areas is how difficult it is to get anywhere and to do anything, particularly if you're doing it tough or you don't have the transport support from family or friends. I lived that. We were half an hour from anywhere in the car. It’s really beneficial for me to be able to relate to children who are going through the same thing. The digital revolution means that children have more access, if they have adequate coverage in their area.
Are you optimistic about the future for Tasmanian children and young people?
“I am. For many Tasmanian children, it is the best place to grow up in the world. We have the most incredible environment coupled with an economy that is growing. I think young people can see more opportunity here. That wasn’t always the case.
Although for some children, life is really tough. Despite significant investment in various strategies over multiple decades, the things that we've got to look at to measure how well our children are going haven't shifted. We still have problems around early childhood development , health outcomes and educational attainment and these are some of the factors that I've pointed out in last year's report to government – Investing in the Wellbeing of Tasmania’s Children and Young People.
We need to invest in the wellbeing of our children because in terms of our prosperity, we need them to do well. If they don’t, none of us will. Thankfully, the government accepted the recommendations, and they are developing a strategy, which could be a game changer for Tasmania by bringing the wellbeing of our children and how we improve it, to the centre of our policymaking. It's very exciting to be a part of that, and the consultations with children and young people that currently are taking place to inform the strategy.”
On February 25, you will be part of a University of Tasmania webinar about raising the age of criminal responsibility. Tell us about this issue.
“My role includes advocacy across many issues affecting children. How children come into contact with our criminal justice system is one very important part of that. Many people in Tasmania wouldn't be aware that in every Australian jurisdiction, children as young as 10 can be held criminally responsible for their behaviour.
This means they can be arrested, taken to a police station, searched, and even imprisoned. Whether this is in the best interests of children, and the community, is increasingly being questioned. The United Nations has called for Australia to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility to at least 14. This is also my view.
The forum is aimed at driving a broader conversation that we need to have as a community. We need to look at how we can support the younger children that we currently have in our youth justice system differently, through therapeutic interventions, for us to then raise the age to 14. This issue encompasses all areas of service delivery designed to support children: education, health, mental health, family violence, poverty, child safety and substance abuse. These are often the issues driving risky behaviour amongst children.
- The Commissioner will be joining a panel of experts for Age of Innocence: Children and Criminal Responsibility. Book here.