Story by Nick Franklin
Down a narrow Katoomba back lane around the kitchen table of a modest bungalow three TAFE students raise their champagne glasses to celebrate a remarkable achievement.
The hostess Jude Pearce has just got an ATAR 94.7 for her HSC - her legal studies mark of 100% topped the state for TAFE. Her friends and fellow students Megan scored ATARs of 95 with a very high mark in English and Kate 94.3 with her highest mark in history.
Jude's story provides a classic case study of how TAFE has the power to change lives and give people a second chance.
Yet when she began her studies at Wentworth Falls TAFE in the Blue Mountains her prospects looked bleak. Aged 53 she'd had cancer and been on the wrong end of 28 years of domestic violence.
Now a single parent surviving on a meagre Work Cover payment Jude was down and about to be made homeless.
"I had absolutely no confidence. Doing the Tertiary Preparation Certificate has changed all that - it's a life changing course", says Jude who pays tribute to her TAFE teachers and fellow students for their support through often tough times.
She's now planning to study teaching at Sydney Uni before getting a teaching job in the bush. It'll be a chance to teach Indigenous children in remote communities - something she feels strongly about, having only discovered late in life that she has Aboriginal and Torre Strait Island heritage.
As Jude talks her young daughter is playing under a Christmas tree.
"My daughter has epilepsy. It makes life difficult sometimes. When I broke my ankle working at Jenolan Caves, I couldn't pay my mortgage and lost our house. If you want to break the cycle of poverty, you have to give people proper access to education. TAFE is wonderful because it makes allowances for people including those with mental health problems".
Her celebration with her friends is tinged with concern for TAFE's future. The three women have read about the State Government's plans to cut courses in Greater Western Sydney, particularly to the TAFE system.
To Jude it just doesn't make sense. As a woman of over 50 she knows how hard it is to get a job without having any qualifications. She'd been applying for 10 jobs a week with no takers. Then she had a chance of a job at the new Dan Murphy's in Katoomba - they just needed her to have an RSA certificate - but her insurer wouldn't pay for her to attend the short course, and she missed out again.
Now Jude is keen for her local politicians to hear about the success of herself and her friends - and will be inviting Federal member Louise Markus and state member Roza Sage to her graduation in April.