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Education, Public Schools & Gonski Speech

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 11 Sep 2012

Again, I rise to speak to the topic of education and why I believe it is crucial that we implement the needs based funding model recommended in the Gonski review to ensure that every child in Australia has the opportunity to access a quality education.

People from around Australia have been writing to me about why Gonski is important, and of their own experiences of schooling in Australia. Here are some words from Fiona in Western Australia:

I live in a small town in the south west of Western Australia. I have three children, two of whom are school age, the third is awaiting her big chance.

The school they attend is a district high with less than 100 students from Kindergarten to Year 10. It is staffed by fantastic teachers - professional and enthusiastic. I am concerned that with insufficient federal funding support our school will suffer loss of resources.

We are small, but we are not insignificant. In the lives of our children and in the lives of those in our community the school is mightily significant.

In fact there is talk of somehow making it possible for students to attend Year 11 and 12 through the school here instead of kids having to commute two hours a day to the nearest regional high school. I am very much in favour of the Gonski report and would like to see the recommendations tabled in that review put into practice. I'm sure our school and our students would benefit.

I recently saw for myself two Sydney schools that demonstrate both the challenges and the potential for public education if it is to offer every child that wonderful thing: the chance to reach for the stars and achieve their best.

Chifley College Bidwill Campus, located in Mt Druitt, is about an hour and a half to the west of the CBD. It has 600 students from diverse cultural backgrounds, including 30 per cent Pacific Islander and 10 per cent Aboriginal students. For many English is not their first language and a proportion of the young people have learning difficulties and other complex social needs. I met the principal, Mark Burnard, the President of the P&C, Vicky Sultana, and members of the school's highly active and effective community liaison team, including Micky, who does outreach with the Pacific Islander community; Rebekah, a youth worker who is studying social work; and Wendy, a former nurse who brings to her community outreach work all the wisdom and warmth she developed in her former career. Together with many other committed staff at the school they are creating a culture of inclusion and welcome for the students and their families, which helps to prepare them for the experience of sitting in a classroom to learn.

The famous Bidwill Blokes' Big Breakfast, held at the school to coincide with Fathers Day, is a case in point. The students are invited to bring along their father or another special male, and over five years it has become an important community event, involving the police, sports clubs, fire brigade, local business identities-basically, blokes displaying their skills, cooking the barbecue and generally celebrating the school and the community. Every year it gets bigger, from six school fathers at first to 50 this year. Is this education? The research is clear that kids learn best if their families are connected with their school, so forging links and welcoming families, especially those who may not have had positive experiences with school, is especially vital.

Many strategies are apparent at Bidwill Campus and they are achieving results. Through the Reading to Learn program, subject teachers are trained to incorporate literacy throughout their curriculum. Eighty per cent of the teachers have now done the requisite eight-days training and there have been noticeable improvements, greater than the state average, in year 9, particularly in writing. It does, however, take significant resources to free teachers up for that amount of time per year. They have introduced a year 7 pilot program so that students have a regular home teacher and a team teacher for two subjects, who will get to know them as a whole person. It helps with the transition from primary school and it is working well, but it is relatively resource intensive and the funds may not be available to support it next year.

The Planning Room-for disruptive students-provides an alternative to suspension. By employing skilled teachers and having a consistent approach to addressing students' learning needs rather than just focusing on behaviour, the number of negative referrals of once-regular attendees has dropped by more than 50 per cent. The number of students completing year 12, the number transitioning to TAFE and university and the number thus coming back to visit their old school and be positive role models for what the students can achieve is increasing.

The team I met at Chifley Senior College love working at their school, offering their students the best chances at life. Mark Burnard was eloquent about the need to invest in public schools so that every one of his students has the chance to contribute to their community. But he also emphasised that there are no shortcuts to quality education.

The running of the breakfast club and the salaries for the community liaison team are all additional to the costs we might traditionally associate with teaching, and their funding is often subject to uncertainty as time-limited programs come to an end with no guarantee they will be continued. It is resources for programs like this that the Gonski review has identified as being crucial for those public schools that are educating the lion's share of students with high needs.

Another public school achieving great things in challenging circumstances is Punchbowl Boys High School, set in a multicultural Sydney suburb where, again, most of the residents are on very low incomes. Over eight years, the principal, Jihad Dib, has nurtured a change in the school culture that is a testament to his energy, vision and overriding concern and respect for his students and their families. Assisted by talented teachers he has cultivated a tangible 'Punchbowl family', which offers the students a sense of belonging and value and encourages loyalty, pride in themselves and pride in their school. Their annual community dinner was recently attended by around 500 parents, teachers and friends of the school. The Punchbowl family has become a big family. Senior students strive to become school leaders, the school has achieved exceptional improvements in scholastic performance, and increasing numbers of boys are entering and achieving high standards in extracurricular competitions. Overall, the students' aspirations are rising and this is being met by their achievements as they increasingly finish year 12 and go on to further study.

During my visit I heard tell of teacher dedication above and beyond: running the breakfast club, the fitness club, free homework and tutoring classes and computer classes for parents. Seven teachers have painted their own classrooms. This is a school where the total fees collected from all parents this year are about $9,000. Yet Jihad has a policy that no child will be excluded from a subject because they cannot pay the course material fees. Somehow he manages to pull this off. And despite their own financial strictures he also encourages the boys to think of others less fortunate than themselves. The school regularly donates to a program for feeding the homeless and sponsors a child in Africa.

So what would needs-based funding and an injection of serious money into Australian public education deliver to Punchbowl Boys High School? More resources would mean more teachers to support those who give of their own time outside school hours for marking or lesson planning during the working week. More funding would also translate into much-needed maintenance on the ageing school infrastructure and assist poorer students to participate fully in the life of the school, with spare uniforms on hand for those whose chaotic family lives mean sometimes they may not get to school in uniform, and bike helmets to lend to the boys in the bike maintenance program so they can ride the bikes they have mended.

Resourcefulness is a matter of pride to Jihad Dib, but it does not mask the fact that needs based funding based on the Gonski model would surely see a significant investment of extra dollars into a fine school which wishes to offer its students the consistency and stability that, for many, are missing in their daily lives. Secure, predictable, adequate funding will enable every student at Punchbowl or the Bidwill Campus of Chifley College or the 6,800 public schools around Australia to get a quality education and have a chance to achieve their best.

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