The Good #2: Limited funding as an enabler

The billion-dollar question of late in the education sphere, is “Will Gonski pass?” Tied into these three words are:

  • a detailed report on current and proposed funding arrangements on Australia’s school system;
  • state government versus federal government versus school sector deliberations on a myriad of potential funding models;
  • public awareness campaigns; and
  • a discourse that has injected new meanings into the term “Gonski”, such that the man and his report are far removed from where we now stand.

In the debate are issues around equity in student outcomes and the ability for each school to set their students up for success. In parts of the country and for some students of particular backgrounds, to achieve this desired state of ‘equity’ extra funding that will provide additional resources and staffing is required.

Now some schools have it tough. Gonski’s report suggested that in schools where different forms of disadvantage are combined, the levels of disadvantage are compounded. Thus the need for increased funding is even more apparent.

In my own school this is the case. Give me 5 minutes and I could come up with a lengthy list of how extra funding could be allocated. I would start with new desks, extra maths and science staff, updated IT equipment, paint jobs in classrooms, sufficient textbooks for every class, student sponsorship for camps and excursions… and then easily go on.

Intertwined into this discussion around the need for funding, however, is an illustration of public and poorer independent schools that is based on deficit language: what we lack, what we need, the state-of-the-art resources that wealthier (independent) schools have.

In part due to my own cynicism that extra funding will be coming any time soon and also as a means of rising above this deficit thinking, it is important to recognise the achievements that are being made by schools that steadily work within their limited capacities.

For example, by not having sufficient maths teachers, some staff at my school have had to teach across learning areas, finding themselves in front of classes that they would not have otherwise taught. While many of these teachers are subsequently placed in challenging and often stressful situations, they are also in a position of receiving additional professional development. Further, the increased scope of their work enables these teachers to gain a more holistic perspective of many of their students’ learning abilities.

Secondary schools are often criticised for focusing on teaching ‘subjects’ rather than ‘students’ – a criticism that primary schools do not receive – so maybe this practice of teaching multiple subject areas should be more deliberately embraced?

Another opportunity that has arisen due to the availability of limited funds, has presented itself in the form of atypical leadership roles for students. While not all students have the chance (or want) to be on the SRC or to attend leadership programs, often these are the primary forms of leadership development that students are exposed to. Leadership is frequently equated with wearing a badge, running fundraisers and standing up at assembly.

In situations where schools are unable to spend freely on extracurricular activities, however, opportunities then arise for students to take on roles where adults may otherwise have been employed. This was the case at a recent school dance, where one student DJ-ed and a few others were official photographers for the night. By maturely taking on their roles, these students proved themselves capable and in turn earned respect from peers.

While federal education reforms are a necessity, we mustn’t forget what schools are still able to achieve, even when cloaked by the more immediate challenge of mere survival.

Giving a Gonski

I recently filled in one of those generic emails to the Victorian Premier about why I Give a Gonski. Before sending it, I stopped and pieced together a short paragraph about my own experience of teaching in one of the most disadvantaged schools in the state.

Here are some of those words, which were picked up by the team at the I Give a Gonski campaign and subsequently posted to their facebook page.

I give a Gonski

Note, the intent of these words is that there are students who are so deeply in poverty that their basic living needs are not being met. As a result, their capacity for learning at school each day is hindered.

Thursday (week 7, term 1)

Q&A AUDIENCE MEMBER: At Melbourne City Mission, we are running classrooms for kids who are homeless. They’re turning up to class in the morning, not with a school bag but with a sleeping bag. These young people have real complex needs that mainstream schools aren’t catering for. This is the question: where are the flexible alternative education programs in this debate for they play a vital role in keeping our most vulnerable kids connected to education.

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, the kind of children that [the audience member] was talking about, these are very extreme cases. These are not children that are in mainstream schools. So there need to be specific programs that don’t just deal with their education needs but their homelessness, their family situation, what their future might be. They may well be drug-addicted and so on. So it’s not just so easy to say, well, this falls into the Gonski review or this is part of the education debate.

For the second day in a row, a different student of mine was suspended. Suspensions tend not to happy easily. They occur when a student is posing a risk to the safety of other students and staff or has exhibited a number of other complex behaviours. This was not the first suspension for this student this year. Indeed there is much going on in this young person’s life. From a young age the student has been involved in taking illicit substances. On various occasions other people, including myself, have been threatened by this student.

Yet the student has no diagnosed mental or behavioural disorders, and has a home to go to every night. In fact, the student is doing well in a number of school subjects, which is a contrast to the typical profile of “hard-to-manage” students, who tend to be many years behind where they should be in their learning.

Admittedly, my ‘mainstream’ school could be doing more for this student on top of what is already being done. We should be checking in with this student every day. There should be a stricter behaviour plan in place. Etc. (I’m not precisely sure what else must be done; I’m not exactly an expert in dealing with these issues). Since we can only be satisfied by working within our means, however, this student has continued throughout the term to disrupt their peers’ as well as their own learning. For as long as this student continues to display such volatile behaviours, their own learning and capacity for improvement will be haphazard and stifled.

In my short experience as a teacher, students such as these are not an anomaly in ‘mainstream’ schools. They may only represent 1-5% of students, but they are still a real and concerning presence. If this is not part of the current education debate, it is unclear to me in what way any education reform can truly produce the sort of change that we aspire to.