ADVICE: Nuturing with a hand up, not a hand out – Anthony Cavanagh, CEO of Ganbina

Ganbina is Australia’s most successful Indigenous school to work transition program, with on average 88% of its Year 12 graduates finishing Year 12, compared to the Indigenous average of 66%.

CEO, Anthony Cavanagh, is leading Ganbina’s vision to achieve true social and economic equality for Indigenous Australians within two generations, with an expansion project that is seeing the model rolled out to Indigenous communities along Australia’s east coast.

  • What do you attribute Ganbina’s successes to?

Ganbina began in the late 1990s when the founders of the charity were tasked to fill government jobs with Aboriginal candidates in the Goulburn Valley in Victoria, where 10% of the population are of Aboriginal descent. However, they soon realised they couldn’t find Aboriginal candidates to fill the jobs available to them – the majority of Aboriginal kids were dropping out of school and were unemployed. This meant they didn’t have the skills to do the jobs reserved for them.  

It was soon very clear, that focusing on work placement rather than work readiness doesn’t work to overcome Aboriginal disadvantage.

Instead Ganbina focuses on the pipeline and captures Aboriginal kids from the age of 6 until they are 25 years old – that’s the entire education, employment and training cycle of a young person’s life. Once the education and employment gap is closed in childhood and adolescence, these kids become work-ready and independent adults who then inspire and create change within their communities.

Our focus is on inspiring Aboriginal kids to stay engaged in mainstream education and employment, we help them discover who they want to be but we don’t tell them what they want to be.

Kids know what they want to do when they grow up from a very young age. My 7-year-old grandson wants to be a police officer like his mum. Now that may change as he grows up – but the spark of curiosity is already there.

That spark exists in every kid – Aboriginal and not, and Ganbina nurtures by giving these kids a hand up, not a hand out.

  • How do you plan to achieve true social and economic equality for Indigenous Australians within two generations?

Ganbina’s pilot program was designed from its inception as a 50 year program, which is two generations. We are almost half-way through and will be turning 25 next year. The program is two generations because the research tells us that’s how long it takes to create meaningful change in disadvantaged communities.

For myself, none of the men in my family could read or write. I was the first man in my family to finish high school. Education was what saved me and I passed this onto my own children. Both of my daughters then went on to finish their own education, find fulfilling careers of their choice and now they are starting their own families and my grandkids will continue the same cycle.

I broke the cycle of disadvantage in my own family because education gave me what I needed to succeed. Without it, I don’t know if I would be where I am today.

When we give Aboriginal kids the skills, knowledge and self-belief they need – they will do the rest and create that long-term change within their own families and communities.

On top of that, we are in the process of expanding our model to a number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales. We know our program works and we want to roll this model out so many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities can benefit from it.

  • Why is the goal timeframe two generations, not one?

Because that is what the research says we need for long-term generational change to happen. As a country we are working to overcome hundreds of years of Aboriginal disadvantage and that will not change overnight.

Ganbina created a model that is focused on impact, results, early intervention and change. The model focuses on Education, Training and Employment and based on this, we realised we needed 50 years or two generations to go through this model to create the long-term impact we are striving for.

If you think about it, a child is really in some form of education, training and employment from the age of 6 until they are 25 years old – when adolescence ends. That’s the full education life cycle and we need to be with these kids throughout that entire journey so they can unlock their full potential.

  • What are the biggest barriers you’re seeing to Aboriginal children and youth remaining in education, training and employment?

We need to focus on where the gap starts for Aboriginal people, which is as early as 6-years-old when they enter primary school. We know that 4 in 10 Aboriginal children start primary school with some sort of development delay – whether it’s poor motor skills, below average literacy skills or communication skills, that’s almost half. For non-Aboriginal children, that figure is only 2 in 10.

This gap that begins in primary school, continues throughout secondary school, then the workforce and creates the long-term inequalities we see in Aboriginal health today. If you’re an Aboriginal Year 12 student, you have a 66% chance of completing Year 12. If you’re non-Aboriginal, that figure is 89%. However our Ganbina Year 12 participants are 88% likely to finish Year 12 – on par with non-Aboriginal rates.

We need to capture these Aboriginal children from that very young age and fix the gap where it first starts, then continue to give them the skills and knowledge they need to make the most of their individual potential.

Ganbina believes in the hand up – not the hand out approach. We won’t give our secondary school kids an after-school job, but we will work with them so they understand the long-term benefits of that casual job at Kmart or Coles. We’ll help them with their resume and job interview skills – but we won’t apply for the job for them. Once kids are bought in and see the benefits of education, employment and training they just need the right support to unlock what they are already capable of.

  • What role is and should the government be playing in helping to overcome these barriers?

Ganbina has chosen to be independent of government funding, because we knew continuity of this program was so important – and governments change every 3-4 years. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t think government has a role to play in overcoming these barriers.

Yes, government should provide financial support but with some important caveats. Financial support should be given only to Aboriginal-led organisations that can prove their impact.

Yes, Aboriginal-led organisations understand community, but that doesn’t mean their programs are working. A study at the Centre for Independent Studies evaluated more than 1000 Aboriginal programs and less than 10 per cent were being evaluated. This means that more than 90% of programs that are aimed at improving Aboriginal welfare don’t even know if their program is making the impact they are wanting to achieve.

Follow up research found that for the small group of programs that are conducting evaluations, only three had strong and rigorous evaluation methods – I am very pleased to say Ganbina was one of those three programs.  

We prioritise independent evaluation because we need to know if what we are doing is working if we want to achieve what Ganbina aims to do.

About the expert

Anthony Cavanagh is an Aboriginal man and the CEO of registered charity Ganbina, which runs Australia’s most successful Indigenous school to work transition program for Aboriginal children and youth aged 6-25 years old. He has more than 20 years’ experience in recruitment and specialises in ensuring Aboriginal children and youth have the skills and education they need to make a successful and sustainable transition to the workforce. 

Image description: Headshot of Anthony smiling at the camera in a black blazer and white-striped collared shirt. He has grey hair and brown eyes, and is in front of a green and yellow background.