​Gonski – What’s at risk.

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Schools in regional Victoria are using their first full year of Gonski funding to bring real change to students, teachers and their communities – but we need the full six years of needs-based funding across Australia so no child misses out.

Allocating school budgets is always a juggling act for principals. There’s never enough money to satisfy every contender’s demands, however valid. But the task is even more difficult when planning is held hostage by uncertainty.

The federal government’s failure to commit to the final two years of Gonski funding could see schools that have seen dramatic, positive change from additional funding face the very real possibility that it will be cut, weakening programs that are already showing results.

Under allocations announced by the Andrews government, Victorian schools will get an additional $358 million in needs-based Gonski funding in 2017 – but there is no certainty beyond that, with the Federal Government trying to stop an extra $950 million being delivered to Victorian schools in 2018 and 2019 alone.

In low-socioeconomic schools extra funds can mean the difference between a child participating in an excursion with classmates, taking a book home at night or mastering the physical dexterity necessary to hold a pencil correctly.

Gonski is making a difference at Kangaroo Flat Primary, on the outskirts of Bendigo in northern Victoria, where 90 per cent of families are entitled to an Education Maintenance Allowance and most “struggle”, says Grade 6 teacher Alastair Pata.

This year the school received $500,000 in Gonski funding, the second-largest amount in the region. Pata, who’s also the sub-branch rep and state councillor for AEU Victoria, says the school made it a priority to explain to the school community what the funding would mean.

“We had a Gonski morning tea at the start of the year and put information in the school newsletter,” he says. “Everyone is happy to hear what we’re doing with the additional funding, but they’re really concerned about what will happen if it goes away.”

Resources mean improvement

The 2016 funding boost for Kangaroo Flat Primary meant more teachers and smaller class sizes for its 280 students. Plus 57 additional hours of education support staff to work with small groups on subjects like spelling, phonetics and writing.

In Prep, 1 and 2, children meet with an occupational therapist to become more capable in holding a pencil, improving their ability to write letters and words.

“Teachers have noticed a significant improvement, particularly in writing stamina,” says Pata. “And we were able to purchase additional reading and numeracy resources so every child can have take-home readers, and it’s a different book each time.”

Grades 3-6, meanwhile, got a new transition officer two days a week to lessen students’ anxieties about the change to secondary school and help them feel good about the process.

“We’re looking at big improvements there to reduce the dropout effect in Years 8 and 9, which we notice here and across the state,” says Pata.

If funding ends in 2018, Pata says the effect will be devastating and students will bear the brunt of the cuts.

“Instantly we won’t be able to afford the additional ES hours and class sizes will increase.

“Teachers get frustrated when they hear that smaller class sizes don’t matter. They can see the difference when a Grade 1 or 2 classroom has 22 versus 16 students.”

Pata calls small group or one-on-one support a “golden time” for teachers when it comes to getting the most out of their students.

“It plays on teachers’ minds and they get frustrated because they can see that kids who don’t really work well in a large group are having success they didn’t have before because of the funding that allows for small groups,” says Pata.

Access for all – a hand up not a handout

Magpie Primary is a small, low-SES school near Ballarat. Two years ago it had 43 students; now it’s up to 88 and expected to go higher, says principal Peter Clifton.

Limited support from the state education department has had minimal impact over the years. But $112,000 in new Gonski money for 2016 has made a big difference already.

For example, some of the funds have been used to reduce the cost of schooling for families by setting low flat fees for a range of activities from excursions to swimming to books.

“We have kids who’ve never been to the beach except with the school, who’ve never been on the train except with school. And more than half of the school had never been on a tram!” says Clifton.

“Now it only costs $3 per student, so no one is getting left behind because mum and dad can’t afford it.”

More education and administrative support staff mean Clifton, who used to divide his time between teaching and running the school, can focus less on answering phones and more on teachers’ professional development.

Teachers regularly visit other classrooms in the region, gaining experience from their peers that they bring back to Magpie. And the school’s integration aide is being developed to transition from helping tie shoes and wipe noses to someone who can work alongside teachers as extra learning support.

“It’s having an amazing impact on the kids,” says Clifton. “Most of our results are well above state average and that’s a direct benefit.”

The budget for 2017 will be almost $250,000, and he’s excited by the prospect. Although he has no option but to wait and see if pressure on the federal government will lead to a change in policy.

“For this community, Gonski is a hand up not a handout. It’s helping to change the learning outcomes for a generation of kids who deserve a chance,” says Clifton.