How Gonski is getting results


19 February 2016

Ask principals what Gonski means to them and chances are you’ll hear the words “flexibility”, “proven results” and “finally being given the responsibility to spend extra funding” where they know it’s needed.

With so much proven success it is disappointing that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has refused to match Labor’s commitment to the full six years of Gonski funding.

Those who were buoyed by Turnbull’s hints last year that he might give Gonski a lifeline were left disappointed over the festive season when education minister Simon Birmingham confirmed the federal government had no plans to deliver the last two years of Gonski funding.

It’s a bizarre stance from a government spruiking the need for an agile and innovative nation, and an education minister who’s admitted schools are already doing “fantastic things” with extra funding.

AEU president Correna Haythorpe says Labor’s investment will ensure all schools have the resources they need to give their students a quality education. “If Malcolm Turnbull is serious about innovation, he will support this in full.”

What’s at stake?

Needs-based schools funding has overwhelming support from business, education, welfare and community groups. As Haythorpe points out, its only opponents are the federal government, and state leaders in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, where schools have suffered a double-whammy: no Gonski funding along with deep cuts to existing education budgets.

For schools that have received Gonski funding, the evidence is clear.

It works.

At Caboolture East State School north of Brisbane, Gonski funding started with rebranding. The school’s motto was always ‘Strive together and excel’ but the mantra: ‘no matter my journey, my pathway to success starts here’ has been added.

Being in one of three states that didn’t sign the original agreement, the school has only had Gonski funding for three years. It has received $305,000 in 2014, $296,000 in 2015 and $406,000 for 2016.

The money has been very welcome. In the past six years the school’s population almost doubled, from 420 to 686 students. Of those, 105 have a verified disability. A further 117 attend the school’s Early Childhood Development Program (ECDP).

Tempering disadvantage

Caboolture East has a high percentage of students with disabilities (SWD). It ranges from 13 to 16 per cent, compared with 5 per cent at most other schools. Most of the children in the SEP have been diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Others have intellectual disabilities, and hearing and vision impairment. And many come from disadvantaged homes.

Funding has allowed more investment in professional development for teachers, to build their capability and capacity to understand those dynamics.

Last year the school introduced two pedagogical coaches to work with teachers on literacy and numeracy, and this year there’s a strong focus on STEM subjects.

These initiatives have only been possible with Gonski. The result is a new culture of collaboration at school, where educators are comfortable observing and learning from each other.

Belinda Nash, one of the school’s pedagogical coaches, works closely with teachers across the school in maths and reading. She says money for diagnostic testing means teachers can now differentiate the curriculum for individual students and therefore act more effectively.

The proof: Caboolture East rated outstanding in almost every area in its last school audit.

No going back

A few streets away, Russell Knowles, principal of Caboolture State School can’t imagine what would happen to his students if funding is withdrawn.

Knowles pools Gonski funding to pay for teacher aide time and learning support for students with disabilities. It’s led to significant progress in student performance across all areas, with specific developments in reading and numeracy, and “phenomenal improvement in writing”.

One grade-three boy who wrote nothing but scribbles can now compose full sentences. They’re short, but well worth celebrating says Knowles. “I was so proud of him I laminated one of his stories and hung it on the wall in my office.”

It’s just one example of what can be achieved when you have the funding to not only test children’s abilities, but put them with teachers who have the time and the resources to provide one-on-one intensive support.

On SES data, Caboolture State School sits in the bottom 11 per cent nationwide. Out of 600 students, 100 are Indigenous, and a large number have English as a second language.

There’s very little staff turnover, which is quite an achievement for a school at the bottom tenth percentile of SES.

Knowles is passionate about the school and expects the same from its teachers. “We work together: the kids, the staff and the parents are a team. That’s the key to our success.”

Gonski lifting results at Katoomba High School

Set in the lush surrounds of the Blue Mountains National Park in New South Wales, Katoomba High School serves a diverse community. Its 660-strong student body is a mix of low-SES and middle-class families, and 10 per cent of students are Aboriginal. All have different learning needs.

When principal Jenny Boyall arrived at the school three years ago, she set two priorities: enhancing student engagement and creating a sense of belonging.

The $120,000 in extra Gonski funding the school received for 2015 enabled Boyall to look at how the curriculum could engage every type of student. The result is a host of new programs that she says have seen the school “become a place that’s not just about the teaching and learning that happens in the classroom”.

Inside out

One of the school’s most ambitious initiatives is Birriban Land Care, a bush regeneration project that’s transformed a two hectare space among the native eucalypts into a living classroom.

Birriban is the Gundungurra word for Emu, and Gonski funding allowed Boyall to employ a full-time Aboriginal education officer, Gary Rule, to run the program.

What started as an alternative to sport, and a way to connect Aboriginal students to their culture and heritage, has become a dynamic learning that is being used across the curriculum to teach art, science, English, geography and maths.

“It’s opening up teachers’ world views,” says Boyall. “They’re seeing how they can use it for teaching and learning. Having Gary here has given them permission to feel comfortable moving into Aboriginal culture.”

Rule, along with another member of staff, also runs a motorcycle repair club for boys who were becoming disengaged at school. Boyall likens it to a young men’s shed and says in its first year eight boys took part, three are now in work and five are doing their HSC.

“One Aboriginal student connected with the program before he started here, working with Gary and the older boys. Now, instead of feeling anxious about the transition to high school he’s become engaged with the school and his culture,” says Boyall.

Extra support

Gonski funding is assisting Boyall in other important ways, such as employing additional staff, who provide extra support with literacy and numeracy, and a full-time teacher who runs a Learning Hub for children with emotional and behavioural needs.

Students entering Year 12 can also access the HSC tutoring program, which assigns them a one-on-one mentor to keep them on track emotionally, assist with specific lessons and advocate on their behalf.

In a nutshell, Gonski funding has given Boyall greater flexibility and creativity to invest in the school according to the needs of her students.

“It has increased engagement, improved academic results and enhanced a sense of belonging and connectedness for students and the community.

“It’s funding we urgently need to continue into the years ahead because we’ve only just begun, and investment in our young people is worth fighting for,” says Boyall.

For a longer version of this article – and more stories from schools benefiting from Gonski funding check out the new issue of the Australian Educator.