Targeting disadvantage in SA

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Peter McKay
Principal of Paralowie R-12 School, South Australia

As a school with students from a range of backgrounds and abilities, and a limited budget, we know how hard it is to give each student an education that recognises their strengths and weaknesses.

The first year of Gonski funding has shown we can turn resources into results. If we can get the full six years of increased funding we will be able to deliver more improvement for more of our students.

At Paralowie we’ve got 1300 students, many of whom will spend their entire school careers here. We’re in a low-SES area in the northern fringe of Adelaide. The school is near the Holden factory, and that’s where some of our students would have got work in years gone by. But things are changing and with the factory closing down next year that won’t be an option. We need to equip our students for the new world of work they’ll enter in to.  

One of the issues that school communities like ours face is the low expectations for students and for the school.

We’ve done a lot in changing the culture at the school in recent years. As recently as four or five years ago only 38 per cent of kids completed their SACEs, now it is past 90 per cent. We’ve got a lot more VET pathways, and case management for students to try and ensure that every one leaves school with a purpose.

But there is always a limit to what we can do, and that limit is set by our resources.

Gonski funding is a huge opportunity for us, not just to make a difference for our students, but to show that schools like ours can use extra funding effectively.  Our initial funding for 2014 was $314,000 so we chose to do something reasonably focused we could expand in the future.

Gonski is a platform of helping students with extra needs so we focused first on students with disability or learning difficulties, to try and lift the results of these students.

We already receive some funding for students with disability, although not always enough, but nothing for students with dyslexia or other learning difficulties. This is a big group, so Gonski was a real chance to help these students, particularly in the early years of school.

We are using Gonski funding for extra classroom support for both groups which has allowed us to reduce the group size they were working in.

That’s not a magic bullet on its own, but it’s an essential step towards improvement. If you are working with a group of 10 kids, and have the right plans and pedagogy, you’ll do more than you could with a group of 20 kids, because you have more time, lower marking and planning load, and more chances to help.

I am always keen to measure student performance to check we’re on the right track. We have the NAPLAN results but they are only every two years and are a blunt instrument. Depending on student age we use Running Records or Literacy Pro to check student progress in literacy.

With Literacy Pro an increase of 50 lexile points in a year is considered appropriate, but once we put the extra support in place we were regularly getting students raising their scores by 150 points and up to 300 points for some students.

We are using Gonski funding to “raise the floor” and lift achievement at the bottom end, but I am still concerned that there may not be as much growth for the students who are doing well. We need to do more to challenge students and stretch them academically.

If we were able to invest more in programs for these students, as we have done with those at the lower end of achievement we could deliver more improvement.

Specific programs to lift results are hugely important, but beyond that we need to look at the broader issues around the culture of the school and learning, because if we can make real and lasting change there it benefits every student.

A lot of research says 60 per cent of learning is influenced by the student’s “disposition to learn” –i.e how they feel about schooling, what they bring to the classroom - and only 40 per cent by what the school is doing. So if we can change attitudes to learning and education we make our teaching more effective, rather than just trying to boost the 40 per cent.

We need to find out from students what they think they need from school, and add that to our experience to develop a school that fits our students’ needs, and find out what we need to invest in to make it work.

The world these students will enter is very different to the one I entered when I left school.  Teamwork and interpersonal skills are going to be important as well as the basics of literacy and numeracy.

There’s a lot of uncertainty around Gonski’s future – and it’s essential that we get the full six years, so that we can make the changes the school needs.

Some of what we’ve done has been designed to be sustainable but a lot of it can’t be, because it relies on extra people in the classroom. The reality is that if the money disappears, the gains will disappear. Likewise if we want to expand the programs that are working we need the resources to do so.

Letting students go through school struggling because they can’t get early intervention support, or not exploring a child’s potential because we can’t afford to give them the challenges they need is a waste and unacceptable.

We can and must do better, and Gonski funding is the key to giving all our students the education they need.

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