Gonski supporting diversity

By Kevin Pope
Principal, Meadow Heights Primary School

Victoria has got its Gonski funding at last and I’m excited about the difference it’ll make at our school.

Gonski recognises what principals know: that different schools have different needs and that not all children start school at the same level.

I’ve been the principal of Meadow Heights Primary School for 11 years, and I’ve seen the effort staff make in schools like ours, in disadvantaged areas with high numbers of students who have English as a second language.

Children from these backgrounds need intensive support from the moment they start school to get over the barriers of language and poverty and reach their potential.

That’s why the announcement that our school will be getting $380,000 in extra Gonski funding next year is a “hallelujah” moment. Victorian schools have been waiting a long time for this, and we need to make sure that the full six years of Gonski gets to Meadow Heights.

I love our diverse school and think our diversity is our strength, but we need to have the resources so we can take advantage of it.

Gonski supporting non-English speaking students

Most of our students are from refugee backgrounds or are recent migrants. We have 41 languages spoken at the school and only 20 per cent speak English at home.

What does that mean in practice?

Well, we send our newsletter out in four languages. Any home-learning we want to happen needs to be translated so the parents can be involved. When we have parent teacher meetings three times a year, we hire 32 interpreters. These measures cost money but they are essential. Schools exist to help parents educate their children, but to do that there has to be communication.

We are provided with two Multicultural Education Aides, but this is not enough and we’ll be using the Gonski funding to increase this part of what we do.

Children who don’t speak English at home arrive at our school knowing maybe 100 or 200 English words, compared to students from English-speaking homes who might know 4000.

These kids are effectively five years behind their peers, and we need to do everything we can to close that gap.

We will use Gonski to increase explicit teaching of spoken English for students in Prep and Year 1. This is an incredibly important building block for these students’ learning, and requires intensive small group and one-on-one support, which takes money.

With Gonski funding we can hire extra staff, and pay for the extra hours, to increase the support that these students have from the moment they start at school. This is crucial to stop them falling further behind, and will be a base for everything else they learn at school.

We’re not a bilingual school, so how can we teach a child English literacy unless we can improve their oral English skills, their vocabulary, pronunciation and understanding first?

Expanding student horizons

We are already running a “Community Hub” at the school which organises playgroups for children who are likely to come to the school. This is a way to engage parents and give the kids some basic learning, and to get assessments done for children with speech or other difficulties, rather than waiting until they arrive at school to begin this intervention.

I also want to use Gonski funding to run excursions which give students the chance to learn about the variety of life outside their suburb.

Excursions have always been tricky for us because many of our parents don’t have the money to pay for them. We try and raise $5000 or $6000 a year from chocolate drives or Mothers’ and Fathers’ Days, but that is our limit and it’s a fraction of what schools in wealthy areas can get from their parent body.

Trips to the beach or the zoo for learning have a huge impact, especially for kids who may never have been there before, so we will use Gonski to show the kids some new experiences which will enrich their learning.

Before Gonski the idea of four $60 excursions for every kid each year was pie-in-the-sky but now we can make it happen.

Our school the only choice for parents

There’s a lot more I’d like to do, and will be able to do if we can get the full six years of Gonski.

I know that there are as many high-quality teachers in disadvantaged schools, as in any other school. It is just that the size of the task they are presented with is difficult without the right resources.

A school like ours has to be the best school on the planet for our students, because there is really no choice for these parents.

I’m excited about our Gonski funding from next year, and even more excited about what will flow after that. This is an investment that really should have been made a generation ago but it is still great to see the tap turned on at last.

We need the full Gonski because to make a long-term difference, funding can’t just be project-based, it needs to be long-term and consistent. Our community profile won’t change from year-to-year and neither should our funding.

The quality of your education shouldn’t depend on how much is in your parents’ pockets. It’s the core work of a school to meet its students’ individual needs and make them as successful as they can be. And that’s the work that Gonski will help us to do.

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