Lithgow is a small New South Wales town on the wrong side of the Blue Mountains – if you consider Sydney to be the right side. Once it was a thriving coalmining community. Now, with the mines largely played out, it has a declining population and a high percentage of families doing it tough.
In 2016, 112 students studying for their HSC at Lithgow High visited the “Every Day/All Day” senior tuition centre in the school library. These visits added up to 22,135 sessions. Their investment paid off. The HSC results in 2016 were the highest they have been in years. Thirteen students achieved results in the highest band, 52 in the second highest. Forty-five students received university offers, two in engineering and one in medicine.
The “Every Day/All Day” tuition was made possible thanks to Gonski funding. It is generous because 52 per cent of the school’s students are in the lowest socio-economic quartile and 26 per cent are in the second lowest. Gonski money, sensibly, follows need. The two student learning support officers who ran the senior tuition in the library were paid for by Gonski. In other words, as taxpayers, our investment paid off, too.
I know this because my sister, Ann Caro, is the principal of Lithgow High School. She was understandably cock-a-hoop when she told me about her students’ results. This made me curious. What were other high schools serving disadvantaged students doing with their Gonski funding and what results were they starting to see?
The most reliable predictor of school success is the socio-economic status of a child’s parents. The higher the status, the better the kid does, and this is true the world over. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense: people who have done well in the world are generally well educated, confident about their ability to succeed and, if all that were not enough, can afford to offer their kids extra help. Children follow their parents’ lead. If Mum and Dad value education and feel comfortable in a school environment, their children generally will as well. Unfortunately, if kids come from families who have had less positive experiences of life and school, that rubs off, too. It isn’t that poor children lack merit; it’s that they lack privilege.
Universal, free, secular, public education was created to do something about this. It’s a big ask and nowhere has it completely succeeded. It is, however, no coincidence that some of the most successful countries academically have among the lowest equity gaps between their advantaged and disadvantaged students. Australia is not in their company.
Australia has used education funding, until as recently as 2014, to increase those gaps rather than close them. Researcher Trevor Cobbold, who heads the Save Our Schools lobby group, says Australia has the largest gap in teacher shortages between disadvantaged and advantaged students in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. We are one of only seven countries in the OECD where disadvantaged schools have a higher student-to-teacher ratio than wealthier schools. Worse, the difference in the sheer number of students a teacher in Australia must deal with is the second largest. We also have the fourth-largest gap in the shortage of educational materials and physical infrastructure. In other words, Australian kids who are already behind the eight ball must also struggle with bigger classes, fewer teachers, crumbling and neglected schools, and classrooms containing inadequate and ageing technology, textbooks, sporting, art, music and other equipment.
For a decade-and-a-half, since the introduction of the so-called socio-economic status funding by the Howard government in 2000, we have been handicapping the opportunities of the kids most in need of them. The Howard SES scheme pretended to be needs based but as it applied only to private schools it was a little like running a hunger relief program for the well fed.
Since the introduction of the sector-blind Gonski model, schools servicing the poorest communities have been able to offer students much better opportunities, tailored to their individual needs. And they are seeing results.
At South Grafton High School, for example, Gonski funding has been used for myriad tailored support programs. They include employing specialist literacy consultants to help students with writing skills, a program that takes South Grafton students onto a university campus for workshops and “university taster days” in both Ballina and Brisbane. This exposure is vital for students who may well be the first in their family to go to university. South Grafton also uses Gonski funding to stop kids dropping out. The school has developed a foundation skills work-offline class for kids at risk in years 9, 10 and 11. They have employed a transition adviser to co-ordinate that program and individual Vocational Education and Training or work experience pathways.
As a result, South Grafton High has improved attendance by Indigenous students from 70 to 76 per cent and from 80 to 84 per cent for the whole school. One in 10 year 12 students achieved results in the top two bands of the 2016 HSC. Seventeen students were in the top band. In other words, give disadvantaged students the support they need and they will respond.
Yet Gonski is in limbo at the moment. Most of the money is meant to flow in the final two years of the six-year scheme. That is how long the review panel estimated it would take to bring all schools up to a minimum national resource standard. But the federal government has refused to commit to more than four years’ funding. This runs out next year. Most state governments are adamant they want to see the full Gonski implemented so, yet again, educators are in for a stoush.
The collateral damage of this largely ideological fight is the lifelong potential of our most vulnerable children and the ability of our income-segregated education system to give them the support and the opportunity they need.
At Fairvale High, a school located in an area of south-western Sydney with the highest rate of pokies gambling and one of the highest rates of family violence in NSW, 50 per cent of its students now achieve above the state average in the HSC. Retention to year 12 has improved from 75 per cent in 2010 to more than 90 per cent in 2016. Gonski funding has also enabled this school to set up tuition centres, student engagement mentors, and a transition adviser to help kids move from year 10 into senior studies or productive post-school training and employment. Fairvale has also used its funding to employ a school nurse, occupational therapist and speech pathologist. Disadvantage creates many problems and all impact a child’s ability to learn. As American education activist Diane Ravitch pointed out, it’s not the quality of the teachers that stops kids learning, it’s poverty.
What’s more, because successful role models matter, especially to kids starved of them, Fairvale High’s 2017 boys’ school captain has been selected – ahead of kids from much more advantaged schools, including high-fee independents – to represent all NSW schools at the National Schools Constitutional Convention in Canberra.
At nearby Canley Vale High, 56 per cent of students are living in homes in the lowest SES quartile, and 88 per cent are from non-English-speaking backgrounds. Principal Peter Rouse says, “Gonski funding has been focused on foundational skills for students such as timetabled literacy classes, free after-school tuition, student welfare programs focused on physical and psychological wellbeing, supports for students with English language needs, and a breakfast club to ensure that every student has the opportunity to start the day well.”
This is another taxpayer investment that has paid off in spades. Ninety-seven per cent of Canley Vale High students perform above the national minimum standard in NAPLAN. Principal Rouse boasts that “HSC cohorts have consistently ranked in the top 20 per cent of secondary schools in NSW, with a four-year average of 90 per cent of our students attaining an ATAR and university entry.”
Coonabarabran High School, 500 kilometres north-west of Sydney, also demonstrates value-adding for students who must overcome the double whammy of isolation and economic disadvantage. They, like all the schools I contacted, have used their Gonski funding in myriad ways to support the particular needs of their students. They include literacy and numeracy support for targeted students, a study centre in the library, agricultural skills day, a breakfast club, and the ability to support a broad curriculum for a small year 11 cohort. Coonabarabran also runs equity programs for teachers to train them and develop programs to overcome socio-educational disadvantage exacerbated by distance. Principal Mel Johnston says, “If year 12 are studying Hamlet – they get on the school bus and view a live performance in Sydney.”
Back at Lithgow High, students from years 7 to 12 now have the opportunity to study robotics and STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine) electives, including a drone pilot VET course. The Gonski model is not perfect – nothing ever is – but it has created hope in schools and communities that were once very short of it.
“If the money stopped coming I would have to sack or demote staff, end the library tuition, stop purchasing technology, stop buying site licences for the literacy and maths programs, stop any equipment upgrades…” my sister tells me. “We need the money to sustain and embed effective practices over the long term, to update and innovate as the world changes. Loss of funding would mean stasis and stagnation.”