Gonski broadens horizons

surprise.pngBy Peter Clifton, principal of Magpie PS, Victoria

Gonski funding can work wonders in a small school. I’m the principal of Magpie Primary School, a school with 88 students just outside Ballarat in regional Victoria.

In recent years the school has had a physical rebuild followed by a cultural one. Extra resources have let us create a school which puts learning first and is delivering real results in a low-SES area.

We’re not just about learning. We are a focus for the community and a place where kids get opportunities and experiences they wouldn’t otherwise get.

Magpie Primary School is 170 years old, but the school has been has almost entirely been rebuilt in the last few years, including two new classrooms from the Building the Education Revolution fund, as well as state government funding. These have allowed the school to replace old demountables and provide new, adaptable learning spaces for kids. Good facilities matter because they increase pride and a sense of belonging in a school.

But what has made a bigger difference is a cultural change that our team of staff has driven. The staff we have are the absolute key, and we have been able to put together a fantastic team which wants to be teaching kids in regional Victoria. It’s a mix of older and younger teachers, including a few who are beginning their teaching careers but are doing it as mature career-changers.

Our belief is that we have to lift the bar higher for our students and that every student can learn and will learn. This has led to us trying to focus on making sure we teach every student as an individual, and meeting them at their point of need as a student, not assuming one size fits all.

Focus on early years

It’s impossible to do this the way we want to without resources, starting with the National Partnership Program and continuing through to the $112,000 in Gonski funding we received this year.

Equity funding has allowed us to focus on the early years at our school, and as our funding expands I want to extend that right through the school years.

We have 12 kids in a prep class and 13 in Year One – with a teacher for each and a learning aide who works across the two classes. That’s about one staff member for eight children and that gives us a golden opportunity to work individually with each child.

We’ve also been able to get some equipment, so all kids can work with iPads and laptops at school. This creates an inviting environment for kids at the school and helps them learn.

I have to say that the kids are blooming under this attention, because we are genuinely able to tailor what we do to each child and give them a kickstart to their learning.

We are seeing improvement on our own assessments as well as our NAPLAN results. In NAPLAN our reading is above state average, and spelling and grammar are a bit below, so that’s where our focus will be in the next couple of years.

As we get more Gonski funding we can start to expand this through the school, so our students will get that extra support right through to the end of their time here.

As well as extra staff a big part of what we’ve done is invest in our existing teachers. We have a small group so we try and do our professional development together, so the whole school is on the same page. We have done a trip to Melbourne for a two-day PD exercise to develop our learning programs and increase our focus on individual students, and how we get them to be lifelong learners.

Expanding learning for kids

We are also trying to expand our students’ horizons. That is a real issue for regional schools like ours, where students might not get a range of experiences at home.  I’ve used funding to subsidise excursions – for example we went to Melbourne to see the Zoo and Aquarium, to Sovereign Hill and to the Ballart Gallery to see the Archibald Prize paintings – which was a great way to teach kids about art.

I don’t want excursions to be free, but I’ve reduced cost to $3 for all of them, so everyone can participate.

These are not just one-off experiences. The memories stay with children for years and stimulate their curiosity, and it’s important to take children out of their comfort zone. Many of our kids had never been to Melbourne, some hadn’t even seen the sea before.

We are using extra funds to try and get the kids to do more extra-curricular things, like sport, both to extend them and to strengthen their connection, and their family’s connection, to the school.

We’ve bought equipment and uniforms and set up some badminton teams because we find after-school sport creates a bit of a balance in the school.

The more different activities and experiences we can give our students the better off they will be, and for low-SES communities that is really only going to happen through the school.

Gonski vital for the future

Another benefit of making school a place where there is so much going on is that we have high attendance rates, even though we have quite a transient student population, with about 20 per cent of kids being new to the school each year.

We have reached a very positive point in the growth of the school, and next year will be even better when our Gonski funding increases to $250,000.

It’s going to lead to a group of students who are confident, able to learn and are likely to go on to further education after they leave school

The future is very bright for the school, but we need to get the resources to make sure the improvements we have made are permanent. If we lose Gonski after 2017 we will not be able to give students the individual support we do now.

It’s easy to talk about a fair go, or equal opportunity, but this kind of funding makes it concrete because it means a child growing up in Magpie can get the same kinds of support and opportunity as one anywhere else in Victoria.

If you are serious about making sure all children have a chance to achieve, then we need Gonski.

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