Wimmera Cluster explores creative local solutions

More than 70 staff from Balmoral, Edenhope and Goroke schools came together earlier this month to explore how they could develop an effective and creative partnership to provide a quality and engaging learning program into the future for the benefit of all their students.

Imagine living and working in a rural school community where your student population has declined by around one-third over the past decade. One where, due to the constraints of low enrolment and the tyranny of distance, you are unable to field a school sporting team or club in many age groups. Where you rely on your staff to become multiskilled and multicurricular practitioners in order to cater for the diverse range of educational needs held within your school community. Where there is lack of subject choice as a result. Imagine the nonexistence of singular, yet powerfully memorable events in our lives, such as Formals and debutante balls. 

Imagine, now, the cumulative affect these local challenges have on the aspirations of the young people within these communities and the stress that this brings to young people realising in their dreams.

Education leaders from three rural education communities within the West Wimmera came together early in 2021 to explore how they could work together to address these challenges. 

As part of their discussions Balmoral, Edenhope and Goroke P-12 education settings began to consider how they could develop creative initiatives to provide a quality and engaging learning program for their students into the future. This discussion spawned into an agreed commitment to foster a stronger partnership, beginning with building closer professional and social relationships between staff and students at all three schools.

The overall student outcomes for these schools individually sits at, or above the state average in the key areas of literacy, numeracy and post compulsory education. However, the education leadership teams were concerned about the growing inability to provide the breadth of learning the believe their young people deserved.

While the education leadership teams saw the real value of working together in the planning and development of programs across their three settings, they were keen to engage all staff (inclusive of teachers, support staff and administration staff) to gauge their interest and support for working together into the future.

Deciding to facilitate a full day workshop, these schools ignited a new relationship by coming together in a shared discussion and planning day with all staff on Monday, 15 July 2021. What began as a dream many months ago, finally took its fledgling steps at the all-staff professional development and planning day, facilitated by Country Education Partnership (CEP).

Over 70 staff from the three schools worked diligently through identifying common contextual challenges that face them all, along with genuine benefits and strengths of what working together could enable for the learning that their young people need and desire into the future. The day revealed that sitting in the room was an immense breadth and depth of skilled and passionate educators, from leaders to teachers to education support staff to administration staff. Discussions were explored with a real passion for what the future might hold, where staff collaborated on curriculum development, forged cross-school professional learning teams, considered how they could support student collaboration between schools, sought to align timetabling, collaborated on student support services, explored collaborative administration processes, structural coordination, and even strategic direction.

There was a strong sense of commitment to working together to provide the learning that their young people deserved.

Former Goroke P-12 College student, Phoebe Allen, provided fantastic motivation for the group, speaking at length of her own journey from a rural school to university and on to becoming the youngest employee of IBM in her department. She spoke of the benefits of her rural education and thanked her teachers, some of whom were in the room; while also challenging everyone about the importance of such a partnership for greater choice and diversity within the curriculum, especially at senior secondary level. (See below  for Pheobes presentation)

For the first time in the history of these schools, all staff came together with their fellow curriculum and faculty practitioners to form thirteen professional learning teams across the three schools – each identifying a key learning focus aimed at improving the learning opportunities for their students. They delved into potential solutions in their respective curriculum areas and have walked away with a strong commitment to action a shared goal this semester. This approach is highly focussed on breaking the historical issue of isolation for staff in their chosen curriculum area and in turn, increasing expectations and outcomes for students across all three schools.

In addition to teaching staff, the education support staff and administration staff also considered how they could enhance the role that they played in supporting the students and schools, through the development of a more efficient and coordinated approach to their service provision.

As all seventy staff walked away from the day, the feeling of renewed aspiration, passion and an authentic belief in the possibility to continue to improve learning opportunities and student outcomes through a locally forged partnership was palpable. 

As we see similar issues facing groups of rural communities and rural schools around the state, is this potentially an amazing collaborative opportunity for such schools to ensure that rural and remote students don’t miss out on the learning they need and desire? Is this approach an ideal way of supporting rural schools and their practitioners to construct powerful locally determined Communities of Practice?

CEP Project Manager Matt Copping, former Goroke P-12 College student Phoebe Allen and CEP CEO Phil Brown. 

Speech made by Phoebe Allen

“I’ll be honest, I didn’t always love being a country kid and I would say that there was a tiny part of me that resented that I grew up in a rural town. I thought that there must be things and experiences that city kids were getting that I was simply missing out on living in a town like Goroke. For example instead of the quintessential first job working in a café or maccas my CV lists ‘farm hand’ as my first job. It wasn’t until I moved away that I could look back and appreciate all that coming from a small town has given me and how having a rural education has shaped me in to the person I am today.

Like many young people I left Goroke at 18 for University where I studied a Bachelor of Business majoring in Human Resource Management at Federation University in Ballarat.

Whist beyond excited to move into the next chapter of my life I was also terrified. Was I prepared enough to move out of home? Did I have the right skill set to get a job?, make friends? etc.

However, what I realized pretty quickly was that I was in fact more than prepared for the next chapter of my life. Living in a small rural community, with limited employment opportunities, I had focused my energies on actively seeking ways that I could contribute to my community through volunteerism. This was something that was always strongly encouraged at school and we were given the platform to easily volunteer due to the school’s strong connection with community groups.

Throughout Secondary school  I’d been a member of the war memorial committee, a state Rural Youth Ambassador for the Country Education Partnership and was always one of the first to put up my hand for any volunteering opportunities at school and in our community. I think contributing to the community has been important for developing myself as a person. It was these skills that gained me the first internship of its kind at IBM Australia one of the world’s largest Global technology company whose work largely focuses on cloud based services and cognitive computing . The soft skills I gained growing up from being so heavily involved in the community enabled me to make a successful transition into the workforce and be a valuable contributor to IBM’s International and local business activities. I also quickly realised that actually coming from a rural area was not a disadvantage but actually an advantage as companies such as IBM extremely valued country students as they believe people from rural areas possess qualities and have a loyalty to them that helps make IBM successful.

As part of my internship with IBM and Federation Business school I completed a three year placement working on the Client Innovation Centre Project Management group based in Ballarat whilst also studying my bachelor degree. This role saw me go from a fresh faced first year university student to becoming one of the youngest IBM Australia employees. Working as a Project Management Administrator on a variety of multi million dollar projects for clients in the aviation, mining and infrastructure sectors. This role saw me responsible for a number of activities including monthly financial reporting, invoicing clients, monitoring the financial health of the projects, dealing with project change requests, resource management and data security and privacy. The internship paired the business and organisational theory I was learning in the classroom with the soft skills I already largely possessed from growing up in Goroke and helped me build on these.

Completing my Internship was the highlight of my university degree and has been invaluable to beginning my career. I truly believe that as a young person getting out of your comfort zone and embracing opportunities such as work experience, mentoring and networking is one of the most beneficial things you can do.

From my internship I gained a graduate position at IBM as a Associate Project Manager where I now work as a Resource Manager responsible for the end to end recruitment of contractors on the biggest Enterprise Resource Planning implementation project currently happening in the Southern Hemisphere. Without undertaking my internship this job would not be possible and I would most likely still be left struggling for an another entry level position amongst the thousands of applicants with no real standout on my CV. Instead, during my internship I networked by openly discussing where I saw my career heading, I stayed in contact with those that worked in areas I was interested in and received mentoring so that I could learn and be the best employee possible.

When it came time to start thinking about my career after university it turns out not a lot of thought had to go into it as I had done the hard yards in the years prior. I was offered a role tailored for me by people that I had networked with and had demonstrated my capabilities to. It not only saw me doing exactly what I had wanted to be doing straight after university, but it also has a variety of career progression opportunities.

None of my success would be possible without the opportunities that the Goroke school gave me. Not only did the teachers teach me to how to read, write and to do maths they also taught me how to work as a team member, communicate with a diverse group of people, how to problem solve and be a leader. At every opportunity they supported students and provided opportunities to learn these skills in the real world. Whether it be through community involvement with days such as ANZAC day, school excursions, or through extra curricular activities. It is these  interpersonal and personal skills that have proved to be the most valuable in my adult life more than what learning algebra in year 11 and 12 could have ever given me. They underpin everything I do and there isn’t a work day where I don’t use a variety of them to effectively and efficiently complete a task. I believe that having these high employability skills is what saw me move beyond being seen as an average employee to one being a sought after by multiple teams at IBM. Its also these skills that I’ve learnt that are most valued by employers rather than whether you simply have strong academic grades.

I also understand that not every student is like me, not every group of students is as eager to put up their hand for any opportunity that comes their way and not every parent is as encouraging as mine or realises the benefits of their children taking as many opportunities as they can. From what I have observed some students in country settings can have a fixed mind set, be more reserved and less likely to push further than their comfort zone. This is why I believe that the opportunities that work on the development of high employability skills needed for life after schooling needs to begin in primary school. For those students who are more likely to stick to their comfort zone by the time opportunities come around in the later high school years it may be already too late and many are less likely to fully embrace opportunities presented to them.

Instead, I feel that consistent presentation of opportunities from a young age right through schooling that challenges students to think beyond their comfort zones and helps build the skills valued by employees later in life so that when life after high school decision making time starts to role around in year 10 students can fully explore all possibilities instead of those that they are simply just comfortable with.

As P-12 schools with both primary and secondary students you are in a prime position to capitalise on this.

The idea of  connecting the three schools builds a great platform for combining the opportunities that you present to your students. Expanding on your curriculum, delivery, and sharing of resources both human and physical and potentially financially. You can continue to offer opportunities that successfully prepare your students for life after schooling. However, I do believe in order for this to be successful it’s the support of the surrounding communities that you also need to have. While having a student first focus is important you need to engage your community and develop a understanding of the benefits of your partnership.

I’m proud to say I have a rural education; without the opportunities I was given throughout my schooling I would not be experiencing the success or have the drive I have now. Good luck with your partnership and I’m very excited to see where it will take your schools in the future.