By Shelby Papadopoulos, principal of Colac Primary School
Our first year of Gonski funding has shown how quickly even a small amount of extra resources can make a difference to a school that needs it.
At Colac Primary School we have been able to put our younger students on track for the rest of their school years by improving their literacy and speech.
But I’m left with a major concern. We know our programs are working, but we do not know if we will get funding we need beyond 2017 to keep expanding those programs so every child at the school who urgently needs speech, literacy or numeracy support can access it.
It would be heartbreaking if, having had a sense of what can be achieved through our 2016 Gonski funding, we lost not only the capacity to maintain what has been achieved but also the chance to make that same difference for all our students.
Community doing it tough
Colac Primary School is located in a small town in the rural Colac-Otway shire of Victoria. It has a student population of 248, the majority of whom are from low socio-economic backgrounds.
Colac is a strong community, but it has been hit hard by the dairy crisis in the area that has led to less money in the town and a huge level of stress and uncertainty for families. Colac Primary already had a significant number of socially and socio-economically vulnerable children, who in general are those most academically at risk, and the number has now increased because of the crisis.
We have a lot of students, especially in the early years, who are are developmentally vulnerable, particularly in the area of language, and require intensive support as early as possible. For example, 58 per cent of Prep students require a high level of language support, and a large number of students across the school require both literacy and numeracy support.
These are barriers that stop children achieving, but they should never be permanent or insurmountable ones.
When these students got the support they needed, the results were extraordinary.
In Grade 1, three terms of daily literacy interventions (20 to 30 minutes in small groups of 3) – for students behind in their reading have saw over 12 months growth for 23 out of 25 students. Similar gains were recorded for Grade 2.
In numeracy our testing data showed strong benefits from the school’s decision to invest in the teaching of numeracy. Not only was there a significant increase in the level of student engagement in Maths, there was significant growth in maths results for Years 3 to 5.
Early support makes a difference
How did we do this? As a school, we had come from a position of never quite having had the financial ability to give our students the level of support they require. Despite the best efforts of staff, the challenges of working within a tight budget are too much.
Colac Primary received $268,000 in additional Gonski funding for the 2016 school year. This was the first time we had received extra funding, and we are delighted that we were able to use it to make an immediate difference for our kids. We decided to focus on support for younger students in 2016, because we felt this was the most effective way to use a limited amount of funding.
The goal was to be able to provide extra support for all students who were more than six months behind with language (through a part-time speech pathologist), or literacy and numeracy (through extra specialist teachers).
Six months may not sound like a lot, but these are children at the very beginning of their education. It is very easy for these students to fall further behind if they don’t get support, and that makes it much harder for them to catch up in the long-term.
Demand exceeded funding
It only took six weeks of Term One for us to realise that the number of extra speech pathology hours our 2016 Gonski funding could pay for was insufficient to meet the level of student need.
That left us with a tough decision because we know that for children to benefit from speech pathology they need a minimum number of hours per week. Spreading the support too thin means it won’t be as effective.
So we decided to shift from working with all students whose language development was six or more months behind to just the large number of eligible Prep students, given the crucial importance of providing intensive support to vulnerable students as early as possible in their schooling.
The specialist literacy and numeracy intervention also had to be scaled back due to high demand and targeted to students who were twelve months or more behind, rather than the original six months.
While one-to-one support is incredibly beneficial for children who are behind, the cost of providing it is high, because it is time-intensive. That’s why it is so frustrating to know that programs could be extended, and benefit more children if we had more funding.
Around 40 per cent of students across the school were more than six months behind in either literacy or numeracy, so there is still a big cohort that could benefit from extra support.
What happens after 2017?
Our programs worked, now we need the funding to maintain them. Losing Gonski funding after 2017 would not only jeopardise the successful interventions that have been made to date, but also mean that Colac would be in the unenviable position of not being able to extend the same level of support to meet the identified needs of all its students.
The best case scenario is that we will be able to maintain what we did in 2017, but will not be able to extend programs to cover all children who will benefit. We also won’t get a chance to expand other programs, and do things like offer students more science and technology, or Gifted and Talented programs.
Needs-based funding is essential for schools like ours. Even before the dairy crisis this was not a wealthy community and had many students who needed support at school.
It is hard to know what our community will look like in a generation’s time, or what the jobs available will be. But I know that the best chance for this town, is to make sure all its children get the education they deserve.