In the Spotlight: NSW Snow Gums Learning Alliance
In the rural reaches of northern New South Wales, there’s something clicking in education.
Together, five small schools are flourishing under the success of a well-established partnership, in which almost every element of school ‘life’ is integrated for the shared benefit of each school.
It’s called the Snow Gums Learning Alliance and it brings together students and teachers from Ebor, Chandler, Ben Lomond, Black Mountain and Bald Blair public schools.
For argument’s sake (and for those of us who aren’t overly familiar with a map of NSW) these small school communities are generally more than two-and-a-half hours inland from Coffs Harbour.
Their student enrolments range from six to twenty.
In the Snow Gums Learning Alliance, there is an integrated curriculum; ‘visible’/shared learning; shared learning support; shared leadership capacity; shared responsibility and accountability for curriculum delivery; and plenty of evidence that the concept works.
Indeed, the Snow Gums Alliance was highlighted in last year’s Independent Review into Regional, Rural and Remote Education as a prime example of “small schools embracing ICT successfully to enrich students’ learning” and “reducing the limitations of low enrolments on an educational program”.
“Embracing ICT successfully” could be considered something of an understatement for this alliance.
Their online portal, alone, does a great deal more — they’ve got maths resources, science resources, literacy resources, welfare and eSafety — it’s all there and it’s all kept fresh with an ongoing commitment from the five schools.
Linda Frizell is the Relieving Principal at Chandler Public School.
She describes the alliance as “an incredibly proud achievement for all involved”.
“Well, first of all, I have to say that I’ve only been here for about one-and-a-half years as a relieving principal … but I’ve always lived in the area so I’ve watched what this alliance has been doing and, yes, it’s certainly something to be proud of,” she said.
“The people, the women, who were integral in establishing the alliance have now, of course, moved on and worked their way up; they did such an incredible job formalising this alliance and they’ve been recognised for that.
“But for the schools now, being in this (partnership) is just second nature — we know it works and, so, we continue to work at it.
“We share everything, really — policy updating, workload, professional learning — everything.”
Ros Edwards is the principal at Bald Blair Public School and she’s intensely proud of the Alliance and all that it has achieved for education in her school.
She took the time to submit the following to CEP, as we shine the spotlight on the NSW Snow Gums Learning Alliance.
What are the origins of the Alliance?
The Snow Gums Learning Alliance was formed in 2013. After numerous successful grant submissions totalling over $50 000, the five original principals collaborated on a number of projects, while maintaining the integrity of each individual small school.
At the beginning of 2018, the alliance experienced a significant shift from the original principals to see four new principals joining the alliance through principal promotion and movement. There now is only one original principal remaining. However, the alliance remains strong and committed to providing outstanding learning opportunities across the five schools.
How did it come about?
The Snow Gums Learning Alliance has evolved over time, having started as a collaboration between the schools in the completion of an integrated learning project using technology. Students worked collaboratively in online learning groups from across the schools to produce a weekly news bulletin. The program provided a half-hour television bulletin once weekly, which was produced and presented by students across the DoE’s video conference network.
The alliance has grown and matured from its original purpose in 2013. After receiving the Rural and Remote Education Funding Grant and the Primary Curriculum Leadership Grant, the alliance agreed to explore innovative ways to deliver a new mathematics curriculum using technology to bring students and teachers together as a learning community. In 2014, the alliance set about creating an online mathematics challenge for students in Years 3 to 6, shared via the Snow Gums website (established in 2014).
With the success of the shared mathematics teaching and learning model, the principals realised that sharing in the development of a mathematics scope and sequence, units of work and common assessments was the logical ‘next step’. The teaching and assessment of learning in mathematics across the five schools is now a shared responsibility and students are reaping the benefits of interacting with teachers and peers from other schools. This model has now been expanded to include English and Science & Technology. Our next focus is the History and Geography Syllabus documents.
What are some of the greatest benefits of being in an alliance?
The alliance has now expanded beyond curriculum delivery to include student wellbeing. Each term, the students meet for sporting or field trip events as well as a bi-annual major excursion for students in Years 3 – 6. These social interactions have enhanced the ability of students from small schools and communities to improve their capacity to form and sustain friendships with peers of their own age and to improve their ability to develop social skills. As a result of these interactions, students are able to engage more meaningfully in aspects of the Personal Development, Health and Physical Education curriculum (in areas such as relationships, anti-bullying and child protection). These events and the annual STEM overnight camp also strengthen the relationships between the students and teachers across the alliance, impacting positively on learning.
A common Learning Support Team was established in 2015 across the five schools. Joint referral and support processes have been developed and agreed upon, with staff using the Snow Gums website as a repository for support documents. We have also secured a single counsellor to support all five schools and attend our Learning Support Team meetings (twice per term).
An analysis of NAPLAN Literacy and Numeracy data across all five schools has indicated a significant improvement in student growth since the formation of the alliance. Internal school assessment in Literacy and Numeracy also reveals progress in student learning, which the principals attribute to the Snow Gums Learning Alliance approach.
The alliance has provided an opportunity for principals to examine their own leadership practices and engage with professional learning in leadership. Using research, the principals have analysed their leadership strengths and areas for development using the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, Australian Professional Standards for Principals. Principals have engaged in a series of intensive professional learning experiences combined with a School Improvement Challenge.
As the Snow Gums Learning Alliance matured and evolved, it was a natural, logical and indeed necessary step for each school’s second and third teachers to become involved in professional learning in relation to curriculum and new pedagogy. Without exception, each of the teachers has engaged whole-heartedly with the combined School Development Days and they have, in turn, taken on leadership roles within the alliance. This has included being responsible for developing specific resources and leading related professional learning sessions. The impact of being included in the Snow Gums Learning Alliance has been commented upon positively by staff from across the schools, for a variety of reasons, including building their understanding of curriculum and improving the quality of their teaching.