Gonski makes real difference

By Sean Bennett,
Principal of Minimbah State School

SeanBennett.jpgWe are a primary school north of Brisbane which has used Gonski funding to make a measurable improvement to the literacy of kids in a low-SES area.

Our first focus has been on literacy because if we can improve that basic skill we can improve a child’s ability to learn for the rest of their lives.

We received $270,000 in Gonski funding in 2015 which has been enough for us to make a real difference for our students.

Literacy is just the start and we will do more in different areas with future years of increased funding – provided that gets delivered to us at it should be.

Through Gonski funding we have been able to invest in more resources and quality teaching and have developed a school culture of success and pride in achievement.

This is the first time we have had the resources to implement a full program to improve literacy. By that I mean the amount we actually need to meet the needs of the students, rather than some extra funding for a one-off program that won’t cover demand.

We have tried to tackle everything that might be stopping students from reading as well they could be.

The school brought a pedagogical specialist in for three days of intensive literacy training for all staff – so everyone was on the same reading program.

That makes it easier for teachers to collaborate and work together, and means they are now more confident and able to provide higher quality lessons.

In addition we have been able to use the “Jolly Phonics” program to increase reading ability and also work with Flinders University expert Anne Bayetto, on strategies to improve reading.

There’s a lot of support for schools out there, and a lot of experts who can lift school performance, but it takes money and time to get them into schools, and that’s what Gonski has given us.

Gonski also means we can employ more Teacher’s Aides and build a bank of volunteers who can assist with classes. That makes it easier for us to cater for the range of abilities within the school and ensure that students who need individual support can get it as soon as possible.

Sometimes it not the lessons that are holding a student back. I know that too many students struggle at school because they have an undiagnosed hearing or vision problem, and that this is an important issue in low-SES schools.

We can’t expect teachers to be health experts so we have run hearing tests for every child from Prep to Year 3, and vision screening for every Year 3 child.

You might be surprised to find that two-thirds of children have some hearing or vision issue that needs addressing. Most are not serious but some are already reducing their ability to learn and the school can then help parents to find the right support and treatment for their child.

Teacher’s Aides have been taught to identify and address speech problems, so children with speech difficulties can get early support.

The literacy program has targeted reading for Prep-Year 3s with impressive results.

Within six months of the reading program starting, students were recording between nine months and two years of progress. That improvement has been particularly strong in Years 1 and 2 – where students are laying the groundwork for their future learning.

I can already see that parents are taking ownership of what the school is doing and talking about the great reading results their kids are getting.

For older students we have used some of the Gonski funding to run Gifted and Talented activities in Mathematics, Science and Robotics that we could not have run without Gonski resources, but which are increasing children’s engagement and love of learning.

We are pretty proud of what we have achieved with reading and this is only the beginning of what we can do with Gonski.

We will roll out similar programs for writing in 2016, and then numeracy after that, provided the funding is maintained. We can also extend support to older students who are at risk of falling behind.

Without the full six years of Gonski funding the school will struggle to be able to build on the foundations we have already laid.

Good intentions and passion are nothing without resources to back them up. We need to keep investing in the school, especially in professional development of our teachers.

We need to recognise that teachers are at the heart of everything a school does and we need to invest in them.

In the end it’s teachers who make the difference to kids, and it’s training that makes the difference to teachers.

I find it frustrating that there is still doubt about whether we will get the full six years of Gonski, when schools like ours are proof it can make a difference.

I would like to see politicians who don’t support the full Gonski to have the courage to look our kids in the eye and explain why they think we can’t afford to teach them to read and educate them to their full potential.

Every child deserves the best start to their schooling, and Gonski has made it possible for us to start tapping the potential of children in our community.

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