Those who missed the ABC’s Lateline last Wednesday night lost the opportunity to learn about a private (they would prefer the term ‘independent’) school in Sydney that actually seems to want to make a difference.
Barker College, a co-educational school in the Anglican tradition, based at Hornsby in Northern Sydney owns and operates the Darkinjung Barker School near Wyong, on the New South Wales Central Coast. The Darkinjung Barker School is small and operates in association with the local Aboriginal Land Council to provide an education to children of aboriginal background in an area where there appears to be significant educational underachievement.
Featured in the Lateline report was the Darkinjung Barker School’s principal Jamie Shackleton. He justified the small size of the school and the better than usual resourcing (the teacher to student ratio) is around 1 to 7 by observing:
We couldn’t do it with a class of 30. It would be – it would be children again slipping – slipping through the cracks. And we’re lucky enough now to have two classes with two teachers and two teachers’ aides where it’s nearly a ratio of one to seven. And that, for those children, is a need.
The school is an attempt to ‘close the gap’. Some of the statistics are scary. From their website
- YEAR 3 – In all assessed areas of NAPLAN and for most States and Territories the mean score for Indigenous students is only at the 20th percentile score for non-Indigenous students (NAPLAN report 2013, p63)
- YEAR 5 – Only 65.8% of Indigenous students across Australia are at or above the minimum standard for persuasive writing compared to 93.3% for non-Indigenous students (NAPLAN report 2013, p 127)
- YEAR 7 – In NSW the mean scores for Indigenous students are between 59 and 73 points below the mean scores for non-Indigenous students. (NAPLAN report 2013, p191)
- YEAR 9 – By Year 9 the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students ranges from 57 scale points in spelling, to 88 points in persuasive writing (NAPLAN report 2013, p225)
Not that Darkinjung Barker School is a new idea. The St Andrew’s Cathedral School in Sydney founded Gawura Primary School, based in Central Sydney, in 2007. The school caters for 28 students from prep to year 6 and attendees are granted scholarships to attend. Gawura’s website suggests
Gawura has three full-time staff, one full time teacher’s aide and one part-time teacher’s aide working with 23 students. This exceptional student/teacher classroom ratio allows us to specifically address the individual academic and pastoral needs of the students. Dialogue between home and school is openly encouraged and reinforces the attention devoted to our students
Darkinjung Barker School openly admits the idea for their school was ‘pinched’ from the Gawura St Andrew’s Cathedral School. Gawura claims their process is simple:
Gawura has a simple formula; the continuity of practice, work habits, expectations and attendance being paramount. The classroom programmes are systematic and intensive, with an emphasis on literacy and numeracy, delivered in a culturally supportive and enriching environment. The Gawura programme continues to promote identity and cultural understanding. Our students are proud of their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage. Wiradjuri classes are always a highlight of the week and the students take great pride in every cultural performance. Eminent educationalist, Dr Chris Sarra, once commented that “Education strengthens Aboriginality”.
The Lateline report linked above records the stories of two of Gawura’s graduates, who are now first year university students, in the accompanying video.
Dr Chris Sarra was appointed the principal of Cherbourg State School in South East Queensland in the 1990s. Cherbourg is an Indigenous community and Sarra (who is of Indigenous/Italian decent) introduced his ‘Stronger Smarter’ philosophy which led to dramatic improvement in the educational outcomes of the school.
When Dr Chris Sarra arrived as the principal in 1998 he set about making fundamental changes to school. He challenged school staff to look at their attitudes towards students and raise their expectations of the children. He also challenged children to raise their own expectations and required them to meet higher standards of behaviour, attendance and learning.
This seems to have worked. Over an eighteen-month period unexplained absences dropped by 94%. Improved attendance also led to better educational outcomes. The diagnostic reading tests of year two students originally showed that 100% of children were below expected reading rates. Two years later, less than half were below expected reading levels. These shifts were also evident for older children. In 1999 all of the year 7 students were significantly below the state average for literacy, by 2004, 17 of 21 year 7 students were achieving within the state average range
Sarra left Education Queensland in 2005 after several complaints were made against him during his time at Cherbourg. The principal who replaced him did not share Sarra’s commitment to the ‘Stronger Smarter’ system and the results achieved by Sarra diminished. A new principal in 2011 welcomed Sarra and his philosophy back into the school and the outcomes are again on the rise. Dr Chris Sarra is now the chairman of the Stronger Smarter Institute
While Sarra seems to support the actions of Barker College and St Andrew’s Cathedral School, in the interview with Tony Jones and Phillip Heath (the Head of Barker College), available here, he has concerns with those who for some reason cannot access the services provided for the ‘select few’.
The Gillard government negotiated with federal MPs as well as state governments of varying political persuasions to introduce the changes (and generally increase) to education funding across the country known as the Gonski reforms. Gonski was a needs based system whereby if a school was in a lower socio-economic area, it received funding appropriate to ensure that the students of that school were not educationally disadvantaged, through the introduction of additional staff and facilities to make a difference. The statistics from the Darkinjung Barker School website suggest that Indigenous schools are generally seeing the results of the disadvantages of lower socio-economic areas.
The evidence from both Cherbourg State School and the Darkinjung Barker School discussed above suggests that smaller class sizes and overcoming issues such as transport are essential to ‘close the gap’ in Indigenous education. The Gonski model of education funding recognised this and made the necessary adjustments.
Prime Minister Turnbull’s overwhelming message in the current election campaign is yet another Abbott style three-word slogan ‘jobs and growth’. Turnbull claims that one of the parts of the plan to deliver ‘jobs and growth’ is advising voters that their children and grandchildren can get good jobs … That is what they want to know.
Ensuring their children and grandchildren can get good jobs is a lofty ambition and one that most Australians would wholeheartedly agree with. The evidence suggests that to get a good job, a good standard of education is required, and in this society there is an expectation that all children will have the opportunity to receive a comprehensive education at a government school for little cost.
In 2010, David Gonski chaired a review of the existing school funding models and determined that in part, the resourcing of schools affected the outcomes produced. The Gillard government negotiated with politically diverse state governments and members of parliament and after some false starts, implemented the Gonski school funding model. The funding model proposed by Gonski and implemented by Gillard funded schools according to the individual needs of the students who attend the particular school. If schools get additional resources based on the perceived needs of their students, they can use the funding to provide support in a number of different ways – whether it be reducing class size, professional development for staff, increasing specialist teachers or providing assistance for students with special needs.
Abbott, in the lead up to the 2013 federal election claimed that he and then Prime Minister Rudd ‘were on a unity ticket’ in relation to ‘Gonski’ funding. By November that year, Education Minister Pyne was suggesting that the Coalition government would ‘go back to the drawing board’ on school funding by 2015. In the now famed 2014 budget, the Coalition government changed its position again and decided to fund education on the Gonski model until 2017.
Current Coalition Prime Minister Turnbull has not changed the previously announced Coalition government position on Gonski funding. The ALP under Gillard, Rudd and now Shorten committed to funding education according to the Gonski model in full. While there is a cost, what is more important – tax concessions to Multi-National Companies as proposed by the Coalition or comprehensive quality education of all Australians? That additional funding needs to be applied to schools in lower socio-economic areas speaks volumes of the inadequacies of previous funding models.
Turnbull is correct – today’s parents and grandparents want their families to have a good job. To get a good job, you need an education. So how does Turnbull reconcile his decision not to reinstate the education funding system, the system the Coalition government under Abbott and Pyne scrapped, with his aim of todays children getting a good job (and potentially growing the economy).
He can’t logically.
The evidence would suggest that the Gonski funding model works. Dr Chris Sarra and Phillip Heath both agreed to the proposition last Wednesday night on Lateline. Apparently Aristotle (rather than the Catholic Church Jesuits religious order) was responsible for the saying, ‘Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man’. Those who have watched the 7 Up television documentaries over the years may dispute the accuracy of the statement. Another old maxim is ‘give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’. This demonstrates the benefits of education over handouts.
Education is important. If Australia’s future is going to be in high technology areas (because it sure won’t be mining), surely we need to ensure that all Australian children get an equally good education – regardless of the socio-economic standard of the area they grow up in. Who knows where the next Australian to potentially invent something as useful as Wi-Fi is going to school. Independent schools and other groups shouldn’t have to pick up the responsibility for funding initiatives to ‘close the gap’ on education ‘one person at a time’ and eventually provide equal opportunity to all. Governments over the past 200 years have created the problem, they need to fix it.
This article was originally published on The Political Sword
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