The 41 schools of the Kimberley region, the northernmost part of Western Australia, face a unique set of challenges.
According to a Kimberley Health Profile published in January 2018, the Kimberley region includes some of the most disadvantaged communities in Australia. Compared with the rest of Western Australia, Kimberley children are more than twice as likely to have a low birth weight, three times as likely to be born to teenage mothers and three times as likely to be hospitalised for potentially preventable conditions.
Emeritus Professor Bill Louden from the University of Western Australia has been leading The Kimberley Schools Project – a program that seeks to address some of these issues in the Kimberley region, by providing a ‘low variation' approach to school improvement.
Funded by the Western Australian Government through the Royalties for Regions program, it asks volunteer schools to sign on to four common strands of activity: targeted teaching; early years learning and care; engagement and attendance; and connecting community, school and learning.
The Kimberley Schools Project
The Kimberley Schools Project was established on the initiative of the Kimberley Development Commission, the statutory authority responsible for the social and economic development of the region.
The opt-in program currently has 10 of the 41 schools in the region involved, with another 10 likely to join next year. Schools interested in being involved are invited to observe a school already taking part in the project. They're also asked to send a group of teachers to attend professional development sessions that focus particularly on some of the learning strategies. Schools are also required to provide evidence that the Aboriginal elders in the community are keen to join in.
Louden says that the climate in the Kimberley is harsh, communities are small and there are great distances between schools.
‘If you think about it like this, it's got the same land area as Germany and the two schools that are furthest apart that are in the project so far, it will be like driving from Brussels to Berlin, you'd just about get to Poland by the time you drove from one side to the other of our most distant schools,' he tells Teacher.
‘So of the 41 schools, I think half of them have five or fewer teachers. These are schools that serve small, remote communities, predominantly Aboriginal communities that are distant from each other. So it's tricky, it's a tricky place to manage school improvement.'
Fundamental principles that underpin the project
Four fundamental principles underpin the thinking about the project: impact, evidence, local leadership and persistence.
With these principles in mind, four strands of activity have been identified: targeted teaching, early years learning and care, attendance and engagement, and school-community relationships. In each case, an evidence review was commissioned to guide the project planning.
When talking about ‘impact', Louden says that if you're going to ask schools to do things differently, it needs to be measurable and closely related to the outcomes the school is looking for.
‘We're paying attention to what the evidence is about the sorts of changes we're promoting elsewhere in the world. If we're asking schools to do the same things, we should make sure that they're things that mostly work where they're done elsewhere,' he says.
The project is intensely local – all the additional staff that have been employed for the project are located in the Kimberley, besides a few exceptions. ‘The real problem with some of these schools is that there's very high levels of transience among teachers and school principals. So lots of teachers only last a year or two, and lots of principals only last a year or two or three,' Louden says.
‘And so there is a lot of turbulence for the community, as new people arrive and do things differently. So we're asking schools and their communities to sign up for a long-term change.'
Attendance is another focus of the project. Louden says that children's attendance in the Kimberley hovers around 60 per cent and it needs to be 93 per cent. ‘It's clear that every day you miss has a long-term impact. And so every school is trying to do something about their attendance and engagement of the children in their community. When we had a close look at that, I think we identified 85 different strategies ... and all schools were doing six or seven things. So that is an intensely place-based thing.'
Essentially, some things that work in one community, wouldn't necessarily work in another, Louden says. ‘For example, some schools, a teacher or a deputy drives around and collects kids who are late for school. In some communities that would be seen as a good thing to do, in others it would be seen as a bad thing to do. So we're working with each school to develop a set of attendance strategies that will work for their community, with their community.'
Early insights into the success of the project
It's still early days and Louden says he can't point to any data that demonstrate that change has been made – this will take up to five years to trickle through – but he adds there are some schools that are seeing more progress than they originally thought they would.
‘There's a lot of excitement among the teachers. There's a lot of pressure from schools that aren't in to be allowed to join and demonstrate that they're ready to join. So mostly I'm afraid that it's like any innovation – at this point it's all about enthusiasm and excitement and there's plenty of that.'
Louden presented these findings and more at Research Conference 2018 in Sydney yesterday in a session titled Evidence-based approaches to school improvement: Kimberley Schools Project.
He says that delegates who attended his presentation are likely to have walked away with strategies that could be applied to their own unique school settings. ‘I'd like people to walk away having thought a bit more about what counts and how evidence can be applied in particular circumstances, such as these very difficult circumstances.'
WA Country Health Service (2018). Kimberley Health Unit. Government of Western Australia. Available at: http://www.wacountry.health.wa.gov.au/fileadmin/sections/publications/Publications_by_topic_type/Reports_and_Profiles/eDoc_-_CO_-_Kimberley_Health_Profile_2018.pdf Accessed 9 July 2018.
Professor Bill Louden says this project is intensely local – all the additional staff that have been employed are located in the region. Is this something you keep in mind when developing a new program in your school? What are some of the benefits of doing so?
Attendance is an issue that this project seeks to address. Louden acknowledges that some things that work in one community, wouldn’t necessarily work in another. What are the particular needs of your own school community? What is your school’s approach to improving student attendance?