By Sue French
Principal of St John's Park High School, NSW
How do you get children from a disadvantaged area to achieve beyond expectations at school? You treat them with respect, and ensure that they, and their families are engaged in what the school is doing. You use every resource you have to build the students’ confidence and ability to participate and learn or to better equip your teachers to teach them.
And that’s the problem – until recently the resources to do everything we need to do have never been available to us.
My school - St John’s Park High School in south-western Sydney - was one of the schools which had its funding significantly increased through the National Partnerships Program from 2011. When Gonski funding began to be delivered to NSW schools in 2014, we maintained our increased level of funding.
We didn’t waste that money. It delivered real improvement for our students and if we keep the funding going for the full six years it will deliver real long-term change in our school community.
Students who finished Year 12 in 2014 had benefited from four years of extra investment. As a result we had four times as many students scoring highly in their HSCs than in 2013, with twelve ATARs over 90 and five over 99. We have a 91 per cent retention rate to Year 12 and 146 of our 200 graduates received university offers.
These are results that we really shouldn’t be getting if you just looked at our student demographics. Over 90 per cent of our students are from non-English speaking backgrounds and 61% are from low SES families.
If we were to get the full six years of Gonski, we would be seeing students who had received that extra support since the middle of primary school, and the difference that could make would be just incredible.
What did our school do with its extra funding?
We did a lot of things which were aimed at building students ability to learn, and to make sure that we broke down the barriers that stop students participating in school, because kids from low-SES backgrounds are more likely to face those barriers.
We use the MultiLit literacy program to target students who were struggling to read. I see this as a huge issue in modern schools, because students are not reading as much outside school, yet reading and writing are crucial to everything they do.
We’ve also employed a speech therapist for three days a week, during which time she sees 80 students. This delivers a big improvement for them, because when you get control of your speech, you get control of your life and your learning.
We’ve upgraded technology and taught teachers how to make the best use of it, not just to manage data but to use it to show the students how to solve real-world problems.
Good spaces make for good learning. Some areas of our school haven’t been upgraded in 40 years, in our industrial arts area we were using machines that were 40 years old.
Spending money on new facilities that help children learn is a great investment. It is not just giving them the tools to learn but telling students and teachers that we respect what they do, so they are more motivated.
As a school we do a lot of work around student leadership, and building agency and resilience in kids, so we can improve their self-esteem, organisational skills and confidence. I think this sort of thing should be happening in every school, but it’s especially important for low-SES schools.
Our learning style is collaborative, student-centred and tries to involve students in the life of the community around them, so they know they have a place in it.
Extra Gonski funding is incredibly important to us but what’s most important is that funding is long-term and consistent.
If you want to change your approach or your learning style, or deliver long-term support over a student’s entire time at school you need long-term funding. You can’t change habits overnight, and you can’t evaluate your changes and tweak them if you need to.
Gonski means that for the first time we have the money to do the things we know we need to do. We don’t have to scrimp and save anymore.
But we can’t afford to let this funding effort lapse, or think we’ve done all we can. Every child in every classroom needs the opportunities that Gonski can give them.
We still have not received all the benefits that Gonski can deliver to our school and our community. We need the full six years of increased funding so we can be properly-resourced to meet the needs of all our students.