Five years ago, two schools and a preschool amalgamated in one of South Australia’s most disadvantaged areas. To make it work, the school’s innovation team leaders have changed the face of learning. By Camille Howard.
(This article first appeared in Rattler 116, published by Community Child Care Co-operative (NSW). To purchase a copy, go to: www.ccccnsw.org.au/shop)
When the South Australian Government created a ‘super school’ (one of six in the state) that combined two primary schools and a kindergarten, community reaction was less than enthusiastic.
The resulting new school, Blair Athol North Birth to Year 7 (BANB-7), north of Adelaide, sits within an area of extreme disadvantage. The children, and indeed families, were disengaged from their school community. Attendance was poor, community sentiment was low, and future outcomes weren’t promising.
An innovation team employed by the Department for Education and Child Development (DECD) were tasked with a seemingly impossible task: to re-engage children and their families and create a culture where children are connected to their learning.
Even before moving into the new school building, the innovation team leaders realised they couldn’t put a school on top of these children; families didn’t love school, no one related to school and everyone hated being there. They had to rethink education.
“The leadership [team] came into the school determined to do things differently, because the traditional way of doing school wasn’t engaging kids,” says Penny Cook, BANB-7’s Head of School, Early Years. “Especially for our cohort of children,” adds Kay Clifford, Senior Leader (Director of Innovation, Teaching and Learning). Embracing the Reggio Emilia concept of the environment as the third teacher, they looked at how they could re-engage the children through the environment.
“When we’re thinking about our cohort of children, some of them come from traumatic lives, for various reasons, so we knew about the importance of wellbeing and that transition to school,” Ms Cook explains. “So feeling comfortable and being in a place where you feel like you’ve got some agency over your learning and your day—the environment is a big part of that. It’s that first physical, visible thing that kids connect with.”
Built as part of a Public Private Partnership, the brand new building still had an old-school institutional feel about it, so the leadership team reimagined how they use the space best, and even what to call the spaces.
“From the start, we thought if we were going to be reimagining or making changes, we need to interrupt that traditional concept, picture or experience of school, which is fairly embedded,” Ms Cook says. They took out the traditional school furniture and created spaces across the school, from preschool to year seven, that were more like homes. “At first that quite disrupted older kids—they didn’t know how to handle it because they were so institutionalised,” Ms Cook says.
Five years down the track, children now expect that home-like environment to learn in. “There’s a lot more independence and collaborative learning,” Ms Cook says. “Children aren’t stuck at desks all day; they are active learners and that goes across the school.”
They also saw the importance of language in this reimagining, so they changed it. “Teachers are called learning advisors, classrooms are called studios, the buildings are called neighbourhoods,” Ms Cook explains.
“Then we have outdoor areas that might be the ‘forest’, which is undeveloped tree area; ‘the loop’, which is the central area where all the neighbourhoods circle around it; the ‘backyard’ is the play area; the ‘green’ is the ovals,” Ms Clifford adds. “We’re interrupting traditional images and expectations of spaces, for a start, and people within those spaces.”
Which is why most learning advisors are called by their first names. “That’s up to them and the kids; it’s not about respect,” Ms Cook says. “That’s one of those embedded beliefs: if you don’t call the teacher Mr or Mrs then it’s not respectful. But respect is much more than what you call someone.”
The innovation at BANB-7 starts in preschool. Part of the onsite Children’s Centre (which also includes occasional care, a playgroup and family and community services), the preschool has a strong connection to reception, the first year of school.
“We got a grant from the de Lissa Action Research Scholarship [Committee for the Lillian de Lissa and Jean Denton Memorial Trusts] where we did some research in the early years about continuity of learning and transition,” Ms Cook explains. “And we have changed our environment quite considerably, so preschool and reception, that first year of school, are really connected.”
This was at a time when South Australia was introducing ‘Same First Day’, bringing it in line with other states to have a one day, single intake to school and preschool at the start of the year (previously, the school and preschool enrolled up to 20 children at the start of each term).
Based on their research, the school changed what reception looks like. Now that first year looks more like preschool, and learning continues via a play-based approach. “Just because kids start school, why shouldn’t they have access to what they have as learners in preschool? We’ve interrupted some of those ‘sacred cows’ in school,” Ms Cook says.
“There’s a lot of play, and we have staff that really understand the intellectual quality and importance of learning through play.”
“And personalising that for each child,” Ms Clifford adds, “bringing out the learning for every child in that setting.”
To ensure personalised learning is possible, they changed the funding arrangements for teachers in reception, to ensure higher ratios. “So we’ve got the equivalent of five-point-something staff for 60 kids,” Ms Cook says. “Which means a greater ability to develop relationships with families and children, and continue that way of learning where their play wasn’t interrupted and they were able to be supported.”
The change in the children transitioning to school has been significant. “Before we did this, even when we started the school, we noticed that kids could play at kindy, then when they started junior primary, they didn’t know how to. And that’s because the environment was taken away from them. It’s a bit like, if you don’t use it you’ll lose it; that ability to learn through play is exactly the same.”
“The construct of school got in the way,” Ms Clifford adds.
Instead, they both urge, if you want to see how competent children are, you need to put the appropriate environment around them so they can show you, and continue to nurture that. “Some of the learning advisors talk about how they don’t launch into the so-called formal literacy stuff, they start them when the children are ready for it. And they’re seeing much more progress and engagement than what they did before,” Ms Cook says.
Ms Clifford agrees. “In the primary years, children’s engagement with learning was something that had to be addressed. They had been turned off, pretty much. So we’re working on personalising the learning for them, finding a way for them connect with their learning and then move through—in a different way, but still growing and developing their skills and abilities.”
Both Ms Cook and Ms Clifford acknowledge change wouldn’t have been possible without the effort of the leadership team within the school, which has been instrumental in getting key messages across to all staff.
For example, when they got their grant to research learning environments, they worked with a small group of teachers within the school, who volunteered to be involved. “We worked with them and they worked with the whole school. That’s why there has been some sustainability, because of that collective ownership,” Ms Cook says.
They also made clear they wanted a collaborative approach, Ms Cook adds. “We used a couple of frameworks as starting points, and we said to staff that they weren’t ‘truths’, rather a starting point to have the conversations.”
It is then up to each learning advisor how they construct their learning environment to suit their children. “Different people are embracing what we’re doing and doing things in a similar way,” Ms Clifford explains.
One of those frameworks included the design principles in Inspiring Spaces For Young Children, by Jessica Deviney (et al).
Another was Jessica Deviney’s (et al) Ratings, Observation Scale for Inspiring Environments (ROSIE). “That became the tool so we could collectively review our spaces,” Ms Clifford says.
Not that it’s been smooth sailing in getting all staff on board. “You’re never going to get 100 per cent strike rate because we’re in a public education system,” Ms Cook says.
So there are many professional development opportunities for all staff, including attending events interstate. “That tends to build that collective team spirit and all coming together on a similar page, to be able to construct their own understanding and meaning of what we’re doing,” Ms Clifford says.
And in a school whose pupils are deemed by AEDI data (now AEDC) to be vulnerable in several areas, it’s perhaps unsurprising to discover staff retention is problematic. “We have had a turnover of staff; that is the public education system,” Ms Cook says.
She also says it can be challenging to get new hires up to speed with what they are doing within the school. “When we do have a choice of employing someone for a permanent position, on a merit-based selection process, we do look for particular things where it’s a fit in philosophy with that of the school.”
As well as re-engaging children in learning, parents and families needed to re-engage with the BANB-7 community. “It took a while for families to understand, and [they were] wondering if this was going to work, or why we were doing it,” Ms Clifford says. “But now there is an acceptance in the community for how things look here and how we go about learning here, and it’s becoming wider known about our processes.”
To ensure this engagement with the school community, the school runs ‘family connections’ twice a year, for families to have dialogue with their child’s learning advisor. “It’s just about sharing the qualities and the strengths of their children. So it’s a two-way relationship; we’re trying to develop that openness.”
“From the beginning,” Ms Cook adds. “So rather than not hearing from your child’s teacher or learning advisor until they have done something, it is set up at the beginning to have that dialogue, as Kay said, for us to learn more about their children from the families, rather than us being the tellers.
For early childhood services looking to challenge their status quo, Ms Cook and Ms Clifford have some advice.
“They have to know what their worldviews and their own beliefs about learning are,” Ms Cook says. “You can’t replicate what other people do, but you can connect in terms of what you believe.”
“You need leaders that are brave and prepared to not go along with policy guidelines necessarily totally all the time, but can see the need for constructing understanding,” Ms Clifford adds. “In the early days, the leadership group worked on developing the principles and elements for effective learning that came from all the frameworks that we needed to be using, but it was constructed by the learning advisors. So the ownership was there; their understanding became greater. It’s all that background, that professional learning and construction of what we do and how we do it that is specific to a site.”
Ms Cook agrees: “There was a lot of investment in building that professional learning community; a lot of investment into what our beliefs are. Because when the going gets tough, you need an anchor.”
You also have to be prepared for the mess and the struggle, because it’s not easy. “It’s always challenging and it’s hard work to interrupt an industrial model of education,” Ms Cook says. “We don’t want people to think that you get any of the good bits without the struggle.”
“And it looking really messy much of the time,” Ms Clifford adds.
“The struggle and the mess is really important,” Ms Cook explains. “Hearing other people’s stories, you always present them like an end point. But there’s never an end point; everything is always evolving. It’s not about getting it right, it’s about getting it as right as you can on that day for as many people as you can.”