Resources drive revolution

reading_book_2.jpgBy Michael Muscat

Principal, Kambrya College

It’s the million dollar question – how do you turn around a school that is underperforming?

There’s no easy answer to this beyond saying that takes years of hard work and patience from the entire school leadership team, teaching and support staff of a school. It needs a shared vision and the approach taken to achieve this will vary from school to school according to their circumstances.

I would like to share some lessons my school has learned on this topic, which can be summarised in one sentence: Investment gets results.

I am fortunate to be the principal of a school that has turned things around for its students. You may have seen our story in the ABC’s documentary series Revolution School which I think gives you a number of great insights into the complex and intense work being done by our dedicated staff every day.

Turning Kambrya around

Teachers are the key to improving student achievement in a school, but giving them the conditions and the support they need takes time and money, especially in schools with a significant number of disadvantaged students. Needs based funding is an essential ingredient in lifting student achievement and building success.

If we don’t acknowledge that some schools will need more resources than others, then we won’t get the improvements that we want.

Kambrya College lies in the sprawling growth corridor to the south east of Melbourne, surrounded by the homes of hundreds of young Australian families.

We are a diverse school community with a high number of students from a low-SES background. About ten per cent of our parent community hold higher education qualifications. Most parents work long hours, have a sizeable mortgage and are enormously committed to providing the best for their children. They are amazingly good spirited people who aspire to their piece of the Australian dream and have fully supported what the school is doing.

In 2008, our median study score put us in the lowest 10 per cent of schools in Victoria – and when you hit the bottom there is only one way to go. But first we had to rebuild our school from the inside out and put in place the “preconditions for improvement”.

Extra funding a godsend

In commencing this massive task we were fortunate to be part of the federal government’s National Partnerships Program. This program was a precursor to needs-based Gonski funding and gave extra resources to low-performing schools.

The National Partnerships funding was a godsend and kickstarted our improvement.

We were able to engage a leadership coach who worked with each Head of Department, Leading Teacher and member of the Principal Team to help sharpen their focus on achieving student learning goals. We now have an extremely cohesive leadership team and our leadership Coach, Pamela Macklin has played an invaluable role over the past seven years in building the capacity of our senior staff.

National Partnerships funding was also used to employ additional Leading Teachers with expertise in the areas of Literacy and Numeracy. Once we had these experts in place they were able to lift results across the school.

They could develop resource rooms for their respective areas and coach selected teachers to further improve their teaching and develop new teaching strategies for different groups of students.   Collaborative teacher teams were established and have proved to be a powerful way to share ideas and resources as well as build consistency to improve student learning. It is not enough to just be a good teacher, you need to be a good colleague and lift the teachers around you.

All these measures were urgently because we have a significant number of students entering our College below the expected levels for literacy and numeracy. Without new approaches and programs, together with a climate of high expectations, students would fall further behind.

Funding drives improved results

National Partnerships funding produced rich rewards for Kambrya College. Our NAPLAN data now shows the College is actively improving student performance in Literacy and Numeracy at a rate higher than the national average. VCE data has continued to improve and over the past four years our results place us among the top 25 to 30% of state schools. Our pass rate for Senior VCAL sits at very close to 100%.

Over the past eighteen months Kambrya College has been fortunate to be part of the University of Melbourne Network of Schools. It has been brilliant to have access to outstanding academics like Professors John Hattie, Lea Waters and Steve Dinham. Through our participation in this network, we introduced Independent Reading in all Years 7 to 9 classes. This has involved setting up a “mini library” in each classroom and provides regular reading time in English classes.

Feedback from students, parents and staff has also improved profoundly over the past three years. Our college has improved the “life chances” of our students by ensuring that they leave school with a meaningful qualifications and enabling them to maximise their potential.

To me, this is the central goal of any school: to give students the opportunity to reach their potential and become fully engaged participants in our society.

National Partnerships was a program that delivered real benefits, but only to the small number of schools that participated. That’s why I was excited by the idea of Gonski funding because it would spread the benefits more broadly, while ensuring that schools with the greatest need got the biggest increases.

Sadly, Victorian schools have not received Gonski funding until this year – thanks to the previous Government refusing to pass the money on to schools. Our students have missed out on the programs which have benefited their counterparts in NSW, Queensland and South Australia.

Gonski can deliver results

There is now serious debate between the major political parties about whether we continue Gonski funding after 2017 or abandon the last two years, when two-thirds of extra funding is scheduled to be delivered.

It would be terribly short sighted to cut needs based Gonski funding. Schools in Victoria will only get a brief taste of what increased funding can deliver and students will miss out.

If our Gonski funding continues right through to 2019, we have big plans to improve and offer more to our students.

We are want to hire expert teachers to coach Mathematics and English teachers to effectively implement the “clinical approach” to teaching as developed by the University of Melbourne Graduate School of Education. This involves using data to know the point of need for each individual student, and a using a range of measures that allow teachers to “know their impact”.

We want to extend Independent Reading at Years 7 to 10 and provide all teachers with training in conducting challenging individual reading conferences with each student in their classes.

Extend our Accelerated Learning Program for underachieving students in Years 7 and 8. We have had great success with this program which aims to achieve three years of their average learning growth at primary school in one year.  But it requires intensive assistance for teachers from speech therapists and occupational therapists.

Introduce a girl’s “Darrabi” program for students who are showing signs of being disengaged and dropping out of school. This would replicate the very successful boy’s program already in place.

We need these programs to overcome the challenges faced by students, particularly from the more disadvantaged sections of the community.

If we don’t support these kids when they need help they’ll struggle right through school and not be equipped to break the cycle of disadvantage.

Our experience at Kambrya College is a shining example of how extra resources can drive better outcomes for students.

There is no better investment we can make for Australia’s future than providing every student with a high quality education. It is best way to give all our young people a rich and fulfilling life. It would be a great pity if we allowed the long held principle of equality of opportunity to be further eroded by cutting needs-based Gonski funding.

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