In Praise of Country Schools

I don’t know what the data says but I’m pretty sure that the number of small rural schools in Victoria (and probably elsewhere in Australia) has declined in the last decade. And many of those that are left will be doing it tough. Rural population decline will have forced many school closures and forced communities to consider mergers and alternative models of governance and education provision. The days of stand alone schools, particularly secondary schools, delivering everything themselves that the community needs and demands are close to over and they’re not coming back.

Country schools are great places for kids. They are known and valued by the staff of the school and learn in a very supportive environment. In some cases they may not have access to the same  opportunities for excursions and co-curricular activity (or at least not without the considerable cost of transport) but in my view this is outweighed by the benefits of country life and small school education. I find it disturbing that some regional and Melbourne based independent schools scour country schools for sporting and academic talent and entice students away with offers of part scholarships. If they know the impact of this on country education communities they don’t seem to care.

Country schools are central to communities they serve. Families considering a move to the country will think again if there’s no school or students have to travel long distances to get to school. If the primary school goes it’s both a reflection of decline and a catalyst for more of the same. Where they do exist, the schools provide a hub for a range of activities and the teachers are central to the life of the town. And it’s even better if the teachers live in the town.

Apart from the value they provide for their communities and students, rural schools are also a great place for educators. The community is usually welcoming and supportive and young teachers find themselves with great opportunities to learn their craft and take on positions of responsibility early in their careers. Many move on to bigger centres but some stay and settle. It’s not unusual for teachers to spend their entire teaching careers in the one country town. For a first time principal, as I was with my first appointment, it’s also a great place to learn. You have to do a bit of everything and know something about every aspect of the school’s operations, from teaching and learning to facilities, OHS, finance, HR, staff management and leadership and so on. If you find yourself, as I did, in a much larger setting it’s the best preparation you could get, provided you don’t allow yourself to become professionally isolated.

I find it a little disappointing that some teaching graduates, and aspiring principals, don’t look seriously at ‘going bush’ for at least part of their careers. The work is the same as in larger schools but it’s a much less hectic environment in which to work. I despair when I read the profiles of graduates from some university teacher training courses, all of whom want – and expect – to work in Melbourne’s south eastern suburbs or on the coast. This accounts to a large extent for why rural schools often find difficulty in attracting staff, and also why young teachers often leave after 2-3 years. The lure of the lifestyle in Melbourne or a bigger regional centre is strong.

I’m old enough to have undertaken my teacher training under a studentship which means the government helped fund my course and I was then ‘bonded’ for a few years and could be sent anywhere to teach. Despite all our fears about being sent to isolated country towns it was a neat way for the government to ensure it could fill positions in schools. I think there’s merit in revisiting that scheme, albeit in a modified fashion. The government is not going to engage in wholesale funding of teacher training but perhaps it could consider support or incentives for small schools. What appeals to me is a scheme whereby schools could retain connection with former students doing teacher training (these are the ones most likely to return to the country) by having them return for teaching rounds and being able to make direct offers of employment to them as they near the end of their teaching course. And some form of financial support for those students wouldn’t go astray either. There is currently a scholarship scheme which provides a one-off bonus to graduates who take jobs in the country but we need to be more proactive.

Country schools can also help themselves, and they do to some extent. Groups like the Country Education Project provide great networking and practical support for schools and I can assure you rural principals and their communities are every bit as innovative as their big city colleagues. They just don’t have the scale to do perhaps quite as much as they’d like.

In Victoria, schools receive additional funding based on small school size and rurality. I’m not sure how this spent in primary schools but in secondary schools it’s spent to provide curriculum breadth at the top of the school. Some people will be aware I’m an advocate of changing that model, without changing the quantum of funding, to encourage more collaboration between schools. Without collaboration and new thinking some country schools are going to wither and die, or become sink holes for funding. There are already many places in regional Victoria where it would be cheaper for the government to close the local school and send students away to an independent boarding school.

There are enormous opportunities through the use of technology to engage rural students beyond their own immediate surrounds and to have them collaborate regionally and globally. There are also emerging high quality online curriculum offerings which these schools should be lapping up, although this will require a fundamental shift in the mentality of some school leaders and their communities who think that their local school should be able to provide all their students need. Or that the alternatives should be available cost free, or at least for a lot less than the cost of local delivery.

The cost to government of running small country schools in comparison to larger regional and metropolitan centres is significant but I doubt we’ll see a rash of country school closures. It still appears to be a no-go area for both sides of politics after the lingering fallout from those in the early 1990′s. These days schools make those decisions themselves although they might be encouraged by new facilities and services available from amalgamation or shared governance with another centre.

These schools also need a supportive educational bureaucracy. Victoria was previously broken up into nine regions for the purposes of administration and educational leadership. In the last four years the five country regions have been absorbed into four new super regions with their bases in Melbourne and support outposts in the regions. This strategy might provide savings and support consistency of government ‘message’ across regions but there is a risk for small and remote schools that need hands on support. It may be too early to evaluate the new model but I have a feeling that eventually the wheel will turn.

So hats off to my colleagues and friends in regional and rural Victoria and their counterparts around Australia. You do a great job and provide your students with wonderful support and opportunities, often under difficult circumstances. If population decline continues you’ll face some interesting choices in the years ahead and you’ll need to think and act collaboratively to survive and thrive.


Let’s close public schools

I’ve been looking at Australia’s education performance on international tests, listening to the objections to Gonski funding reforms, reading what Kevin Donnelly has to say, recalling John Howard’s concerns about values in government schools, following Christopher Pyne’s announcements and reflecting on Joe Hockey’s concerns about the state of our national finances. Based on all of this there seems to  be only one way forward: the government should get out of the education business and close all public schools.

Surely this serves the national interest. In non government schools, students achieve better results and develop values and character in keeping with society’s expectations. It would also save the nation billions of dollars a year because, as we often reminded, non government schools save the taxpayer money. More students, more savings. It would also be consistent with much of our education policy at federal and state level which seems to be about not much more than making public schools more like their independent and faith based counterparts.

So it’s a win all round. Students get a better education and moral upbringing and the government saves a fortune.

Well, there might be a few issues but nothing the free market couldn’t sort out, surely. First one would be the flight of families from schools in which their children now have to mix with the general population. Maybe the government could help them out, somehow. Perhaps a series of select entry government funded schools for the best and brightest.

I guess another issue might be how these schools could afford to educate their new students given their educational needs. After all, the non government sector would have just picked up 80% of the poorest students in Australia and somewhere around the same number of indigenous and disabled students. Maybe the government could look again at ongoing funding of those Gonski reforms, seems like there might be a good argument for funding students based on need after all.

And the parents who can’t afford to pay for textbooks, uniforms, excursions and other supplies (let alone school fees)? Maybe they take out loans or perhaps their children just can’t attend school at all. Damned tricky this inclusiveness business.

Of course it’s not going to happen. Too much at stake. It is absolutely in the interests of the non government school sector to have a public education system which can survive but not thrive. It allows someone else to look after the students they don’t want. Parents can keep their children safe from the great unwashed and they can also  feel good about making sacrifices and doing something ‘better’ for their children than sending them to the local school . Where academic and sporting talent pops up in the public sector it can be lured across with a scholarship or a better ‘offer’ at the top end of primary school.

That’s the most unkind characterisation of non government schools, I know. They are simply in the business of educating children, as we all are. But not all children, by choice. What all students should be entitled to is something approaching equality of opportunity (although maybe it’s not a good time in Australia to be talking about entitlement, particularly for the less well off).

Of course this proposition wouldn’t suit politicians either. The current arrangements allow them to claim that they have a genuine commitment to public education. Deep down I doubt most do, but it’s important for their credibility and allows them to indulge in the ‘choice’ agenda. Where do their children attend school?

Quite simply, students in public schools don’t have equality of opportunity at the moment because we’ve had a long, slow shifting of the funding scales in favour of non government schools. It’s out of balance and if it doesn’t change Australia will suffer the long term economic and social consequences. But long term thinking is often too difficult for governments.

Whenever education funding reform is discussed the advocates of ‘choice’ are very vocal about the disaster that would befall us if non government schools closed their doors. Perhaps it’s worth considering what would happen if the opposite occurred. 


Independent Public Schools

I notice much ado about Christopher Pyne’s launch today of the $70m ‘independent public schools’ policy. Others analysed this thoroughly before the last federal election – the knowledgeable Bronwyn Hinz here and here for example. And you will find plenty of discourse over the merits of independence for public schools such as this from Save Our Schools.

Of course, as Bronwyn Hinz points out, Victoria’s schools have been independent in the sense that Pyne means for 20 years. I doubt many would want to go back to centralised control. So there wouldn’t appear to be much in today’s announcement for Victoria and $70m won’t spread too far given the number of schools across the nation. If there’s money available then of course we’ll be in line but the focus – building leadership capacity and community engagement – is the day to day work of schools anyway (although we could always do a little better at the latter).

My concern is with the muddled thinking behind the policy. There seems to be a prevailing view on the conservative side of politics that non government schools are somehow ‘better’ because they are independent of government control and supposedly engage better with their communities. The sooner this is knocked on the head the better. Not only does it allow politicians to hide from the realities of what makes schools ‘perform’ but it leads to waste of time, energy and money. And worst of all it’s patronising.

There are two very simple reasons why, on average, non government schools do better than their public counterparts. They can set their own enrolment policies and they have more money – including the right to set compulsory school fees. That’s it. It’s not about whether a school is government or non government. The top performing schools in Victoria years on year are public schools – the select entry government schools. It’s all about the student cohort.

With the exception of some low fee independent schools, most independent schools aren’t interested in educating challenging students. Low SES students with high academic or sporting ability might get a guernsey through a scholarship – topping up and cherry picking are common practice – which serves the dual purpose of assuaging the conscience of leaders in those schools and further denuding public schools of talent. I find it rather ironic that public funding of non government schools puts many of them in a position where they can strip talent from public schools. Catholic schools are a slightly different case, they straddle the middle ground but long ago gave up their original educational mission and are comfortable with a role somewhere between the public and independent sectors and the student cohort that goes with it.

Whatever your view of the relative merits of public and independent schools don’t fall for the line that improvement is about governance, values or community engagement. I could improve our school’s results overnight by exiting the students who we know will struggle to achieve strong academic results or by excluding  them through setting compulsory fees. But the government won’t allow us to do either and I wouldn’t want to. I want to be able to sleep at night knowing that our school is inclusive of all comers.

So Pyne’s independent schools policy is a distraction and there’s scant evidence to suggest that it will lead to improvement. The right course to take, and the one backed by research and public opinion, is to recast school funding along the lines proposed by the Gonski reforms. There’s an argument that these reforms don’t go far enough and won’t completely address the growing divide between the haves and the have nots in schools and in our communities. But our national interests are not served by the current funding model and no amount of ‘independence’ without funding reform is going to fix that problem.

Rosalind Park7

Rosalind Park

Our college is fortunate to be located within Rosalind Park, one of Bendigo’s most attractive locations. Being on a tight site with no sporting fields of our own and less open space than we’d like our students have naturally gravitated towards the park during their lunch breaks. And while they are entitled to do so as members of the public we are also acutely aware of the need to maintain the park in good shape and the requirements of other users.

From time to time suggestions have been made that the college may move from this site and this question has been raised again during the recent master planning process for Rosalind Park conducted by the City of Greater Bendigo. Yesterday the city released two concept plans for the future of the park and is seeking community feedback. One of the plans includes the conversion of the two school sites – ours and Camp Hill Primary School – into parkland.

Before people rush to make comment on the concept plans it’s important they understand that they do not represent firm proposals for future development of the park. The master planning process has focused on the need fora strategic approach to future development of the park given what some may view as haphazard planning decisions in recent times. There’s little doubt that a plan needed to be put in place to guide future development.

The master planning group identified a number of things that might be achievable in the short term to create a more ‘park like’ feel for some areas of the Rosalind Park precinct, particularly those along the Barnard Street frontage. Beyond that, the group also contemplated what might be possible in the coming decades and the result of this is the concept plans released yesterday.

I believe there is a clear understanding among members of the master planning group that structural change to the park, such as that contemplated in the concept plans, will only be achievable when and if current user groups choose to relocate. There will be no forced relocation. This would apply equally to the pool, tennis courts and velodrome, for example, as it would to the schools.

The land on which the schools sit was excised from the park in 1863. It does not fall under the council’s control or, strictly speaking, within the purview of the master planning process. It has made sense, however, for the schools to be at the table as discussions took place about the potential future of the park.

Let’s be absolutely clear about this. The council has no capacity to force relocation of the schools. I don’t believe it would be so foolish as to propose this and neither would the state government, with both sides of politics committed to local determination of school futures. Our college has no intention of moving . I cannot predict what may happen in 30-50 years time or what the provision model of education may be at that time, but I find it hard to believe that the college would relocate given its attachment to the site, the fact that its been here for over 100 years and the need for a central education location in Bendigo.

Our college will continue to grow and as it does so I see exciting possibilities for future development on another campus, perhaps with a specialist focus and a university alignment. At present we are focused on redevelopment of our current site and increasing the amount of casual recreation space available; the redevelopment of the old gaol site and future removal of relocatable buildings are critical to this objective.

I support the master planning process for Rosalind Park and I see exciting possibilities in the concept plans. But the relocation of the schools won’t be among them.

Virtual School

Victoria needs a virtual school

It’s time Victoria had a virtual school. At present the state is served by a number of providers catering for students who need access to curriculum beyond what their own school can provide. There are also students learning outside normal school settings who need the support of a school or another educational provider. It’s historically been assumed that this need is greatest in rural and regional Victoria but there is evidence that significant demand also exists within metropolitan Melbourne.

By far the largest of the current entities is the Distance Education Centre of Victoria (DECV). Another key service for foreign language learners is provided by the Victorian School of Languages. In recent years a number of other providers have emerged to meet perceived gaps in provision. There are a number of video conferencing arrangements in place in different parts of the state, there have been programs set up to provide support for inexperienced or isolated teachers in schools (through the Country Education Project, for example) and my own school has an online model through which we provide delivery for other schools.

The Victorian government is moving to establish a digital learning strategy, I imagine to provide direction and support for teachers in schools, and an online learning strategy which will attempt to draw together the expertise and experience of current providers. What shape this takes and how it affects provision is yet to be seen but I think this is a time for the state government to be bold and to establish a new entity to serve the needs of students and teachers. But first a little background.

Most of the current providers listed above exist because individual schools are not able to meet the curriculum needs of their students, or students outside school are unable to access curriculum. Let’s not underestimate the importance of access to a broad curriculum, particularly in the senior years of schooling. It’s a major equity issue, particularly when high level Mathematics, Sciences and Languages cannot be accessed by students. This is a very real possibility for rural students and the evidence is fairly clear that these students are less likely to progress on to university.

Up until the point of starting their VCE students need access to a high quality curriculum and good teaching and there is certainly a role for a Victorian Virtual School to provide online materials, professional development for teachers and perhaps even some short courses or electives for middle year students. But the greatest need is clearly in VCE provision, and perhaps in some vocational areas of study at Years 11 and 12.

Over the last couple of decades a small fortune has been spent around Australia creating digital learning objects for teachers to use with their classes. The bulk of this content has been created for F-10 level and all of it in the form of individual learning objects which teachers can use to support their teaching. Because of the lack of national curriculum and the control of assessment by individual states there has been no investment in the area of greatest need – the senior years of schooling – and in whole courses as opposed to learning objects.

Creating content for use within the VCE (and the same would be true for the senior school certificates in other states) is a challenging exercise. These students do not have access to a teacher in their own school, either because of teacher shortages or the school not being able to afford to run classes with small numbers. So there is a clear design challenge: it’s one thing to create digital content for a teacher to share with and explain to their own students. It’s another thing again to create something which stands on its own and can be used by students in isolation, even with the support of an online teacher. And there is also a vast difference between individual learning objects and whole courses loaded with assessment.

It shouldn’t be assumed that the online option is a lesser one for students. There’s a good argument to suggest that blended modes of delivery – where an online curriculum is supported by an online or face to face teacher – can actually improve student learning. If the content is high quality and the teacher is outstanding then this will be a better option for some students than the standard option provided in their school. Why wouldn’t we want to make the best curriculum, the best resources and the best teachers available to all students?

Funding for Victorian government schools currently includes loadings for small and rural schools, often running into hundreds of thousands of dollars per school. This equity funding recognises the need for viable small schools in areas where students have no other choice. At present the funding is primarily used in secondary schools to provide curriculum breadth in the senior school, allowing these schools to run very small classes. One of the questions for the government is whether it is prepared to rethink this model as it redraws its funding parameters to incorporate the Gonski principles and investment. One option is to pool some of the existing funding, or isolate some of the additional Gonski funding, to create a series of high quality online offers for students in all schools.

As it decides what to do the government needs to consider the current pattern of provision. The DECV has moved into online delivery in some areas and appears to be undergoing something of a transformation but still suffers from a bad press in the eyes of some schools, unfairly at times. Can their business model be changed? Video conferencing serves localised needs and is impossible to scale because it’s a synchronous mode of delivery – students in other schools need to be free when the delivering teacher is timetabled to teach. It’s also limited by the quality of the delivering teacher.

In my opinion the state needs an asynchronous model at VCE level, one where quality content is presented in a fully online course supported by an online teacher. An investment needs to be made in the creation of courses. They should be constructed using the expertise of the best available teachers in the field, be fully interactive and measured against international standards. Likewise, the online teacher needed to support the delivery should be the best available.

I believe the government should create a new entity for this purpose. A Victorian Virtual School would harness the best available talent in the three skill areas needed for this type of work: content experts (teachers), instructional designers and technology experts. It would require a degree of centralisation to ensure quality control, particularly during course construction, to oversee delivery and manage support for students and schools. There are great risks in spreading the creation of courses too widely but once created they can be delivered from anywhere.

What I’ve described above is an advanced version of the model our school currently runs through the Victorian Virtual Learning Network, under which we will deliver subjects to students in 45 other schools around the state in 2014. However there is much to be learned from the best of the other provision models as well and bringing all the providers under one umbrella has some attraction. If the government’s inclination towards market based solutions prevails this is unlikely, however. It may also be reluctant to fund a start-up Victorian Virtual School as a separate entity with significant research and development funding, although I consider this necessary to create real transformation in this area. So it may become a question of whether or not the government is willing to lead and invest.

The absence of a broad national curriculum and a national assessment regime in the senior years means that the Australian education market lacks the scale necessary to attract much commercial investment in online school education of the type described above. But Australia should not remain isolated from the development of online curriculum and teaching for much longer. There is some level of activity in each jurisdiction in this field, although interrogation often reveals a fairly simple ‘virtual’ model which lacks interactivity. Victoria has a chance to lead and the financial capacity to do so. The question is whether it has the vision and the willingness to act.

The question of what it would take to run a successful virtual school is a good one for a future post.


School Funding

Interesting article in The Age today from Ben Preiss about school budgets for 2014 (link at bottom of this post).

Funding is delivered into Victorian government schools through the Student Resource Package, which provides a certain amount of funding per student to which is added amounts for a range of other things including:

  • Students with disabilities
  • Rurality and small school size funding
  • New arrival and refugee students (to support language programs)
  • Vocational Education and Training (VET)
  • Cleaning
  • Maintenance
  • Utilities

Funding is divided

  • 80% credit, for salaries. This is held centrally but controlled by the principal
  • 20% cash, received in quarterly payments and managed by the school council.

The credit component is obviously the big one and this is where there can be considerable pressure if the school has a high cost staffing profile eg a lot of experienced teachers with higher salaries. Some schools are able to generate a profit from their credit line and convert this to cash to use for local projects. More common is the ‘staffing deficit’ where the cost of staff exceeds the budget.

So when principals express concern about their budgets they are generally talking about the credit or salaries component. Government schools, apart from those receiving significant equity funding, generally run with fewer staff than non government schools which have the capacity to set compulsory student fees.

Enrolments are the lifeblood of any school, particularly for government schools which are banned from setting compulsory school fees. More enrolments, more money, more staff, more cash, more programs. The opposite is also true.

The great hope of government schools has been that the Gonski funding would deliver significant additional resources based on student need. The frustration being spelt out in The Age article is that precious little of that funding has made its way to schools at this stage, with the exception of high needs/low SES schools. It’s inevitable and appropriate that additional funding should flow to these schools first but other schools are clearly struggling with funding. Anecdotally my colleagues all seem to be saying that 2014 looks like a difficult year and that perhaps there has not been sufficient indexation of budgets to offset the higher salaries due to last year’s EBA outcome.

I have particular sympathy for my colleagues in schools along the Murray where their NSW neighbours appear to be flush with additional Gonski funding for 2014. Makes it hard for them to compete for enrolments when the NSW schools are now able to offer more staff and programs.

As my previous post on ‘What School Principals Might Want in 2014′ pointed out, school funding will be a warm political issue in the 2014 state election and again, and perhaps even more so, at the time of the next federal election. There might be arguments, as in this case, about when and how Gonski funding is released but the Napthine government and Labor (federal and state) are committed to seeing the full 6-year Gonski funding package delivered. In the meantime there will be some angst about what’s delivered to schools.