By Rebecca Hack, principal of Berserker Street State School, Rockhampton
At Berserker Street State School we don’t give up on any child, and we don’t expect any government to give up on the Gonski funding we need.
Disadvantage isn’t spread evenly across our society or our school system, and schools like ours have had to become experts at dealing with clusters of extreme disadvantage.
We need to do things differently, and with the help of extra resources we have created a program that is letting kids thrive.
We take a lot of children in care, or from refugee backgrounds who arrive at school with no formal education or English skills. We often get calls from other schools asking if we can take a particular student, because they have seen our success and think we can help them.
We are in the 5th percentile for ICSEA – that means 95 per cent of schools are above us in the wealth of their parents. We have 30 per cent Indigenous students and high numbers of kids from non English-speaking backgrounds.
We have high numbers of students with disability, about 100 out of our 500 students are classified as having disability by the official criteria. Only about three-quarters of them are getting any funded support – which means we have students with behavioural or other issues which require intensive support but no funding to provide it.
The challenges facing schools like ours are totally different to those in an average primary school. So how do we deal with them?
Resources let us treat children individually
The first thing is to set high standards: we know we can get results, and make a difference to every child who comes in. If our first plan doesn’t work we keep trying until we find an approach that helps that child learn and be an active part of our school
That requires a huge amount of persistence from staff, and a lot of resources.
We received National Partnerships Program funding prior to Gonski, starting in 2009, which allowed us to develop a strategic plan for a three-year school renewal process, and at the heart of this was offering more support to classroom teachers.
I can’t overstate how much these extra resources meant. They allowed the school to step back and focus on things beyond the day-to-day stresses, and plot a path to improvement.
If we identified a gap or a shortage of something, we could start to fix it.
Every teacher here needs to be able to teach students with disability, with behavioural issues or who are recovering from trauma. There needs to be a lot of consistency in the way we do things across the school because those students can react badly to change and disruption.
We give every teacher who arrives at Berserker Street a six-month intensive training program – whether they are new to teaching or have experience on other schools.
This involves them observing other teachers and being observed as well as targeted professional development. All of this costs money, because you can’t just pull staff out of classes and leave students unattended.
The way we do this is through investing in professional development and allowing teachers to be released from the classroom to mentor, model, observe, coach and plan.
We often run after-hours professional development, so it doesn’t cut into class time, but we still need to pay for trainers to come to Rockhampton – which I’ll do because I think increasing our skills is crucial. You can’t expect students to come out of University with all the skills they need to be great teachers, we need to make sure they can build their skills through collaboration.
We have also spent time getting teachers to re-work the way they taught, so it was more in line with our kids needs – but we made sure they had the support to put that into action, so if we decided we needed to teach maths in small groups, we had the support in class to do that.
What we’ve done with Gonski
Gonski has allowed us to have more people supporting the work our teachers do.
- We have been able to employ extra support staff to work with our very complex case-managed children. This includes a speech pathologist four days a week.
- We have paid therapists to develop programs to support our children, through occupational therapy, fine and gross motor skills, etc.
- We have employed extra staff to provide interventions in literacy and numeracy for the many children who arrive at the school behind in those areas.
- We have a full time youth worker employed through PCYC.
- A language pathologist who works four days a week with the students who are non-verbal, due to disability or their environment
- We don’t charge school fees and can provide a uniform free of charge to any student who needs it.
- We have set up a Gifted students program to ensure student talent doesn’t get lost, as well as an innovation centre for robotics and coding
- We’ve also managed to get laptops for the school, using donations as well as Gonski, because so many of our students don’t have access to a computer at home. These are XO laptops which have been designed by MIT engineers to provide a low-cost and durable solution for poor schools. They are great but technology moves quickly and they will need to be replaced
All of these things are part of the toolkit that we have to try and deal with the individual issues that students bring.
I’ve taught at a range of schools, and I think Berserker St is the most professionally satisfying because you can see the difference school makes for kids.
The problem is that so much of what we do is dependent on funding and if our kids don’t get that support here, they won’t get it anywhere.
We face a lot of uncertainty after 2017, because some of our other funding grants are due to end and we don’t know if Gonski will be continued. That means we could have to make hard choices about what we can afford to keep.
But if we had the full six years I’d like to invest more in early years literacy, as well as extra funding to support our students with disability.
Success goes beyond NAPLAN
Our students are showing improvement in their data, but I think that a lot of our success won’t show up in things like NAPLAN. When a child is able to attend school full-time, for the first time, surely that is important.
If you want to talk about the cost of funding our schools properly, you also need to talk about the broader benefits.
Here’s one simple example: we have a mother who has been able to enter employment for the first time since her son started school. The simple reason is that her son is getting support for his behavioural problems and is no longer being repeatedly suspended from school leaving her to look after him – so we now have one extra taxpayer and one less welfare recipient.
There are students at Berserker Street who have a strong likelihood of entering the justice system, through juvenile detention or even adult prison.
If we can re-engage even one of those children in education, and keep them out of the courts then we are saving Australia more than the entire cost of our National Partnerships or Gonski funding.
The full six years of Gonski funding is an investment we can’t afford not to make.