The Right to Education in Queensland - an interview with Abi Ketheeswaran and Madeleine Jensen

For the first blog post of the year, we interviewed law students Madeleine Jensen and Abi Ketheeswaran in relation to the pro bono work they have been undertaking over the last few months on the Human Rights Act (Qld), and the right to education for children. Both students, who obtained the opportunity through the UQ Pro Bono Centre, discuss the most confronting aspects of the work, how it has changed their view of the legal profession, as well as why they believe all law students should undertake pro bono work.

Please tell me a bit about your project.

Abi: Our project concerns the right to education within the Human Rights Act (Qld). At the time the project commenced, the human rights bill had been proposed before parliament, and members of the law faculty were seeking to explore the effects that the new laws may have on children and the right to education. However, this also included investigating its potential effects on a broader level as well. Initially, the project itself was centered around planning a community engagement event, where this section of the Human Rights Act (Qld) would be explored and discussed in a public forum.

Maddie: We have debated the need for the existence of a human rights bill in Queensland, but not so much what rights would be protected under it. When you think of right to education you automatically think of standard schools and standard pupils. It was only by undertaking this project that we began to explore more substantive issues relating to the right to education. For example, how do you enforce that a child with physical and intellectual disabilities has the right to education? Our project thus became centered on the right to education for children with disabilities.

Abi: We began looking towards the current education system, and what schools had in place. What these schools needed to do, was to make their education programs tailored to the needs of individuals with disabilities. This was written into the section of the legislation, but what does this mean on a practical level for children with disabilities? We aimed to explore these issues through our research, and address them at our community engagement event.

Why did you apply to this pro bono project in particular? What made you want to apply to this project?

Maddie: I was first engaged with the topic through Advanced Research (LAWS4114) under the supervision of Anthony Cassimatis. The research topic concerned the normative study of the right to education internationally. I was then required to look at whether the Human Rights Act (Qld) and the right to education would be compliant with international standards, and how it would help Australia fulfil its obligations. So when the opportunity popped up to undertake further research on the topic through the pro bono centre, I was interested to further drill into the topic.

Abi: In the past I have done quite a bit of volunteer work which involved mentoring refugees and children from low socio-economic backgrounds. It was through this previous volunteer experience that I saw the significant impact that a proper education can have on children, particularly those facing or experiencing marginalisation. Knowing that this project could make a change, no matter how small, was important for me. There seems to be little concern in making education accessible for the marginalized individuals in society.

What is something confronting/interesting/surprising you learned in undertaking the project?

Maddie: I went into the project having just completed a 10,000-word Advanced Research essay, and thus had three months of experience researching the broad topic of the right to education. The aspect of the pro bono project which was most exciting for me was assisting in the facilitation of the community engagement event. This is because it was led by a broad spectrum of professionals who were all from different academic disciplines. For example, there was a member from the education faculty, one of the lead campaigners for HumanRights4Qld, as well as Tamara Walsh from the TC Beirne School of Law. I was confronted by the severity of the issues faced by students with disabilities, and the effect this had on their parents. These issues included physical abuse in the educational setting. It was difficult telling these parents that we don’t have the solution to these issues, but that the act is a step in the right direction.

Abi: Researching the topic was well and good. However, when the community engagement day rolled around, I saw the lack of support the parents of these children had from the government and schools. It was quite confronting. You could see their struggle, and their efforts to better the lives of these children going unrewarded. However, the event was fantastic in the sense that there was a strong sense of community. The parents understood one another, and the identical struggles they all faced.

How has this experience changed the way you see the legal profession, or maybe the way you see the legal profession & your role in it?

Maddie: I think with every new pro bono project I participate in, a different angle of the law reveals itself. It also really takes you back to these grassroots issues in society. Sometimes you get swept up in the pressures of university but making some time for pro bono work really puts things into perspective.

Abi: It made me question what my future is going to look like. I do law and commerce, and therefore the most logical path to take would be a corporate one. However, through this project, I realized that my true passion lies in humanitarian work. Seeing Tamara Walsh speak at the event was inspiring. Additionally, learning about the amazing work she has been doing, has made me question what I want to do with my degree in the future.

What further work is there to be done?

Maddie: In terms of the project, we are looking at perhaps meeting with various school principals and discussing the work which has been done so far. The meeting will essentially be focused on how the principals, and their respective schools can implement the right to education on a policy, practical and cultural level. We are also going to be publishing a fact sheet soon, which will either be published by a community legal centre or the UQ Pro Bono Centre itself.

Abi: The right to education is the mechanism for change, but the schools are the facilitators of that change. I think it’s important to go straight to the source, which is what we will be doing with the school meetings. We also are planning to potentially create an educational video for the general community about the right to education. It will feature the panelists who attended the community engagement event.

Would you recommend that students undertake pro bono projects and why?

Maddie: I am like an Avon lady for pro bono. I cannot advocate it enough. Pro bono work gives a new respect for the social context the law operates in. It is such valuable exposure, and the work is so varied. I have bounced around from the Land Court, to the West End Uniting Church, the Chief Magistrate’s office, the former Attorney-General of Victoria and police officers. The capacity to make some change, no matter how small, is at our fingertips. Just join the roster!

Abi: It has given me a lot of focus. I think it is quite easy as a law student to get lost in this degree and to forget why you’re even doing it in the first place. Pro bono, in my opinion, brings that back into perspective.