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Deliver everyone a great education

Deliver everyone a great education banner imageEducation is a pathway out of disadvantage, giving people the tools and confidence to pursue opportunities and reach their full potential.

Education is important at every stage of life.

Receiving high-quality early childhood education sets young children on a positive trajectory, providing them with the cognitive and social skills to learn, develop and engage with their peers.

Later, completing their school education leads to better job prospects, and therefore better health, improved wellbeing and enhanced community and social engagement.

Vocational education and training provides people with the skills they need to gain meaningful work, or to retrain or upskill to maintain employment.

However, the benefits of education are not experienced equally across Victoria.

Children and young people from socioeconomically-disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to attend early learning programs and, if they do, will go for fewer hours. They have lower school attendance rates and are more likely to discontinue their studies, placing them at greater risk of financial hardship, physical and mental health problems, drug and alcohol misuse, homelessness and a life involving crime. About 10,000 young people drop out of school each year.

Every Victorian should receive a great education.

Fund two years of early learning for every child

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  • Fund and deliver 15 hours of early learning for all three and four-year-olds.
  • Develop a further package of initiatives to ensure more children experiencing disadvantage can access early learning services.

 

Every child deserves a solid start to life, putting them on a positive trajectory and helping them become happy, healthy and inquisitive. Children’s brains undergo rapid development in the first five years of their life, building the foundation for later learning.

The Victorian Government can give all children the best start in life by providing 15 hours of early learning for all three and four-year-olds.

High quality early learning is a smart investment, providing both short and long-term benefits. For example, children with two years of early learning have better language skills and early number concepts when starting school, as well as greater independence, concentration and peer sociability. At age 16, they do better in English and maths, and achieve higher overall exam scores. After high school, they are also more likely to pursue tertiary education.

While all Victorian children benefit, children from families experiencing disadvantage enjoy the greatest advances. High costs mean these children are less likely to receive early learning. They also face structural barriers, such as inconvenient operating hours and locations, a lack of public and private transport, complex paperwork, low levels of cultural competence and lack of trust in service providers.

To address these structural problems, the Victorian Government can deliver a reform package so more children from families facing disadvantage participate. This can include pre-purchasing more early learning places for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, enhancing services to be welcoming and inclusive, educating families about the benefits of early learning, and having a ‘key worker’ to build relationships and better support families. It can also include improving services’ cultural competency in line with the Murrung Aboriginal Education Plan 2016-26.

A growing number of countries already provide universal early childhood education. New Zealand fully funds 20 hours per week for three and four-year-olds and the United Kingdom provides 15 hours per week. The United Kingdom also extends this to two-year-olds facing disadvantage, including those from families on low incomes, asylum seekers, children in out-of-home care and children with disability and special education needs.

The Victorian Government’s recent investments in early learning is a great start, particularly $55.3 million for school-readiness. Working with the community sector to design and deliver the next stages of early childhood reform will make this funding achieve the best results. This will help the Government meet the Education State goal of ensuring every child can access and benefit from early childhood services and reducing disadvantage so all children reach school ready to learn.

Koorie Kids Shine at Kindergarten

The Koorie Kids Shine at Kindergarten campaign raises awareness of the value of early childhood education and access to 15 hours of free three-and-four-year-old kindergarten per week for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

Enrolment spots are also secured for Koorie children through the Victorian Government’s pre-purchased places program.

Since 2014, the participation rates of Koorie children in four-year-old kindergarten have risen from 79.6 per cent to 90.5 per cent and in three-year-old kindergarten have risen from 37.1 per cent to 48.8 per cent.

Help young people re-engage in education

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  • Expand the Navigator program state-wide, incorporating the lessons from pilot site evaluations.

 

Keeping young people engaged and happy at school should be a key goal for the Victorian Government. Young people at risk of disengaging must be embraced by the system, not pushed further away.

To achieve this, the Victorian Government should expand the Navigator program state-wide. It should increase its capacity so every young person at risk of leaving, or who has become disengaged, is helped to re-engage. The Navigator program can accompany a suite of complementary measures.

The Navigator program is being trialled in eight Department of Education and Training (DET) regions. It provides case management to young people aged 12 to 17 who have disengaged from school or are at risk.

Navigator assists young people who face multiple, complex barriers and require flexible, intensive and tailored support. Navigator’s success has resulted in long waiting lists where the program is available. Children and young people in the remaining nine regions have no access at all. While the 2017-18 Victorian Budget provided more Navigator funding, VCOSS members say this will not meet demand.

It is crucial the Navigator program has the capacity to undertake proactive outreach to identify young people who have disengaged from education, and provide intensive, flexible support. Eligibility should be broad and flexible so the program does not arbitrarily exclude young people who would benefit. The Navigator pilot program evaluation can be used to guide a state-wide expansion.

It is important to recognise that other early intervention programs exist in Victoria, such as the Reconnect: Engagement and Learning Support Program and School Focused Youth Service. However, access to some programs are inconsistent and VCOSS members report a lack of coordination between different programs and services in some areas.

The Victorian Government should facilitate greater coordination and referrals between schools, education and training providers and various programs, to ensure children and young people receive timely support and do not fall through the cracks.

Navigator success: Eli’s story

Eli* was referred to the Navigator program after patchy school attendance for two years. Eli was struggling with depression and social isolation and felt extremely anxious about returning to school.

Navigator assisted his family and school to communicate and develop a re-engagement plan. Over three school terms, Eli progressively moved from part-time attendance in the school staffroom with some home tutoring to full-time classroom attendance. He received assistance for his anxiety from a local mental health service, with support from his family, school and Navigator program staff. Eli now has an 80 per cent attendance rate and was recently graded as ‘at standard’ for eight of his nine subjects in year nine.

*name changed to protect identity

 

Help students with disability thrive in education

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  • Overhaul the Program for Students with Disabilities to appropriately support all students with disability by making it a functional and educational needs-based assessment and funding model.

 

The Victorian Government provides targeted funding for about 24,000 Victorian students with disability through the Program for Students with Disabilities (PSD). This means many of the estimated 84,000 students with disability are missing out on support for school success. The Victorian Government can help these children achieve by reforming the PSD funding model and ensuring schools take evidence-based approaches.

The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) recently identified “significant unmet need for support services in schools”, including occupational and speech therapists and integration aides. It reported some schools were continuing to actively exclude students with disability. For example, some students were only allowed to attend school when a funded integration aide was available, or were placed on part-time attendance schedules following behavioural problems resulting from their disability being mismanaged.

The current PSD model takes a deficit-based approach, focusing too much on a student’s disability diagnosis and not enough on what that student could achieve if properly supported. This approach also fails to recognise that students facing disadvantage require greater support.

Although Victorian Government and parliamentary reviews have recommended updating the PSD funding formula, including the Victorian Government Schools Funding Review, the Inquiry into Services for People with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and the Victorian Government’s own review of the PSD, the Victorian Government says that updating the funding model is still ‘under consideration’.

The PSD funding formula must be updated and based on a functional and educational needs-based model.

Students with disability can only maximise their academic and social development when schools teach based on evidence and adopt behavioural supports that actually work. VCOSS holds serious concerns about schools restraining and secluding children. While policy material and best practice resources are provided, they are inconsistently used or enforced by the Department of Education and Training.

VCOSS supports calls by VEOHRC in Held back: the experiences of students with disabilities in Victorian schools for independent oversight and strict enforcement of reporting requirements, adherence to new policy material by educators and new laws to ban the use of restraints and seclusion.

Remove school cost barriers

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  • Identify the costs of providing free instruction at different year levels and adjust school funding accordingly.
  • Educate schools and ensure compliance with the new Parent Payment Policy.

 

Victoria’s laws require the standard education curriculum to be provided free to all students but, in reality, families are spending increasing amounts on their children’s education. This includes spending on digital devices, home internet packages, textbooks, stationery, school uniforms, sports days, elective subjects, camps and excursions. The out-of-pocket annual cost to send a child to a state school in Melbourne is up to $3,409 (primary schools) and $5,297 (secondary schools).

While some support exists for families experiencing disadvantage, including the Camps, Sports and Excursions Fund and State Schools’ Relief, this does not meet costs for many.

Community sector organisations report being overwhelmed with requests for assistance to meet educational costs, particularly at the start of the school year. Where families cannot afford costs, children and young people risk being excluded from the standard school curriculum and educational enrichment options.

The Victorian Government can stop children missing out on learning by properly funding schools to provide the standard curriculum. The costs of providing instruction at each year level can be calculated and schools funded accordingly, to ensure access to free state education for all Victorian children. The Auditor-General found DET does not understand the actual costs of providing free instruction and, so far, corresponding funding adjustments have not occurred.

Victorian state schools are responsible for developing their own parent payment policies based on Victorian Government guidelines. Policies have been applied inconsistently, and DET has responded with an improved Parent Payment Policy in 2017. However, the Auditor-General found schools still do not understand or comply with the new rules, and there is limited monitoring and oversight.

The Victorian Government can educate schools to ensure compliance with the new policy so the costs of education are not a barrier to school engagement.

Further strategies

 

Provide targeted support for ‘middle years’ school students

Developing comprehensive ‘middle years’ transition plans and investing in tailored prevention and intervention services for children at risk of disengaging would help keep them engaged at school.

There are clear support structures for children in primary school and teenagers preparing to leave the education system, but no such policies and services aimed at children in the ‘middle years’, from grade five to year eight. This is a time when children experience significant physical, socio-emotional and developmental change and may first experience challenges such as the onset of mental health issues.

Children in the middle years are increasingly seeking support at youth services, often with complex problems. Signs of school disengagement can also emerge in the first few years of primary school. Without the appropriate support, children from disadvantaged backgrounds are at increased risk of becoming disengaged from school and having lower educational outcomes.

 

Invest in flexible learning options

Flexible learning options deliver more tailored education and ‘wrap-around’ support in alternative settings to mainstream schools. They also assist young people with complex needs who require more intensive assistance to remain engaged.

The Victorian Government can help students stay connected to education by ensuring high-quality flexible learning options are available equitably across Victoria. VCOSS members report many students don’t have access to flexible learning options, particularly in rural Victoria. DET does not systematically track availability across the state.

Flexible learning options need enough funding to ensure the delivery of high-quality programs. They should be integrated or connected with mainstream schools to provide genuine alternatives for young people, not used to remove ‘difficult’ students from the classroom. Investment in expanding flexible learning options should be based on evidence and best practice principles.

 

Maintain needs-based equity funding

The Victorian Government can improve the educational outcomes of school students facing disadvantage by maintaining the existing level of needs-based equity funding in schools.

Equity funding means schools can provide additional assistance to students facing disadvantage and counteract concentrated disadvantage.

Equity funding also allows schools to develop innovative methods to help students do well, such as new literacy and numeracy interventions. Robust monitoring and accountability can ensure equity funds are spent effectively to benefit students facing disadvantage.

 

Stop rushed and unreasonable school expulsions

Hundreds of children are formally expelled from Victorian Government schools each year, some as young as five or six years old. Most expulsions do not comply with Victorian Government regulations, including the lack of a plan for the student to find a new school.

Many more children are expelled informally – encouraged or forced to leave a school without a formal expulsion process – despite informal expulsions being prohibited by DET.

Too often, students who display challenging or unproductive behaviours at school are viewed as a ‘problem’, without considering the complex issues involved, such as children experiencing trauma or family conflict. Children with a disability or mental health condition, those in state care, and Aboriginal children are overrepresented. In its Investigation into Victorian government school expulsions, the Victorian Ombudsman found many recorded expulsions could be prevented “had the school been willing – or better supported – to deal with the behaviour”.

The Victorian Government can help prevent early school leaving by delivering its commitment to implement the Ombudsman’s recommendations.

 

Assist students who have experienced trauma

The Victorian Government can improve outcomes for children who have experienced trauma by ensuring all teachers and school administrators receive comprehensive trauma training. Schools should also be required to deliver evidence-informed, positive behaviour models.

Trauma makes it harder for children to pay attention in school and can lead to learning disabilities, an inability to regulate emotions and other behavioural problems., Providing teachers and other staff with a better understanding of trauma and its symptoms and how to provide a therapeutic environment will enable schools to better support children’s learning, development and wellbeing in the classroom, and better respond to behavioural challenges. This will particularly benefit children in out-of-home care, those who have experienced family violence, and refugees and asylum seekers.

Students who have experienced trauma would benefit from access to qualified wellbeing staff. Schools also need to build skills and understanding to promote students’ mental health and wellbeing. For example, VCOSS members report benefits of models such as the School-wide Positive Behaviour Support Framework, an evidence-based framework that creates a positive school culture and helps schools better respond to challenging student behaviour.

 

Berry Street Education Model

The Berry Street Education Model equips schools with knowledge and skills to promote positive cognitive and behavioural change, particularly for students who have experienced trauma or chronic stress.

The model applies a therapeutic, strengths-based approach to teacher practice and classroom management. It integrates clinical, educational and welfare approaches, drawing on Berry Street’s approaches to trauma-informed learning and neuroscience.

The model started in 2014 as a pilot with two state schools and has since been rolled out to 40 schools across Victoria and interstate. A pilot evaluation found the model had positive impacts on student engagement, wellbeing, behaviour and academic achievement. The model works best when a whole-of-school approach is taken, so it is consistently applied across the school and incorporated into every classroom routine. Ideally, every staff member is trained, including teachers, leadership and administrative staff.

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