Remote education: Flexi-calendar meeting school community needs

Earlier this month we shared details of the successful co-principalship model at Gunbalanya School. In the second of two articles, we find out about the remote school's switch to a flexible calendar to improve student attendance, and how educators are working with the local community and industry on different pathways to prepare students for work.

Gunbalanya School is the first remote community independent public school in the Northern Territory, where Esther Djayhgurrnga and Sue Trimble work side-by-side in a joint leadership approach.

When the co-principalship model was implemented in 2011, Trimble says it was an opportunity for the duo to ‘put up some fresh ideas', and one of their priorities was student attendance. They could see that most students were at school in the early part of the year, but the attendance dipped in the second half of the year when most students were out of Gunbalanya.

A school calendar to suit the local context

Sitting on the eastern edge of Kakadu National Park, the school is in a very remote location. In the wet season, the community is completely cut off by rising waters from the East Alligator River. ‘The first thing we did was change the calendar,' Trimble tells Teacher. ‘We moved to a flexi-calendar which looks after the 40 weeks that we have to teach kids, but we made it into a calendar that is more suitable to this context and the seasons.'

The change followed consultation with the School Council and local community. They split the Indigenous calendar into segments and mapped what was happening at different times – seasonal factors, customs and commitments – and also added in student attendance data. The school leaders could see more people were in Community in the wet season and were more likely to be away in the dry season (for example, going out camping and for traditional ceremonies). To better suit these needs, the long holiday in December and January has been replaced with a three week break. Staff and students return at the start of the wet season in early January and the six week break now falls around July and August.

‘It works for us. It works because this little community gets landlocked in the wet season, you can't get out anywhere,' Trimble explains. ‘We become like an island and so nothing happens until the dry … then people can start going out on Country, driving to Darwin, going to different places, so they all start to move around again.'

Trimble adds the long July break also suits staff because they can enjoy going out camping or overseas at that time of the year, and the difference in school holiday dates means airfares are cheaper. The flexi-calendar was first trialled six years ago and has become a regular fixture.

Student pathways

Another focus for the joint leadership team has been student pathways. They were keen to develop vocational (VET) pathways and started by drawing up a skills matrix of jobs available in the community to help better prepare students for the transition to employment. The school developed close partnerships with the local meatworks, Gunbalanya Station and Energy Resources Australia, which runs the Ranger Uranium Mine at Jabiru.

There are two pathways in the secondary school – work readiness and the NTCET (Northern Territory Certificate of Education and Training). For the latter, the majority of Year 12 study is a VET component. Gunbalanya has a trade training centre, teaching practical skills students will need in the workplace. Each year an embedded trainer is contracted with a different area of expertise – for example, conservation and land management, or building – depending on job opportunities and industry needs. There are also Certificate II and III pathways into employment in the preschool and family centre.

This year, the school is exploring online business opportunities. ‘Generally, the families want the children to stay here … and the students don't really want to go away,' Trimble explains. ‘They don't want to live and work in an urban situation, so we need to create pathways here, [pathways with] job opportunities. Now we're looking at online businesses because it doesn't depend on a company here in the community. Our Arts Centre does a lot of online business – they're selling their art online.

‘So, we're trying to skill them up in those types of areas, but all the organisations in our town support the school by offering work placements. The students go out on work placements every Thursday. Some offer traineeships and we've had one apprenticeship, so everyone is trying their very best to home grow our students and our workforce.

‘The ranger pathway is very big – learning on Country. We have two rangers working with our Teacher Ranger. That's been going two years. They're doing a lot of work around weed management, and that's seasonal again (depending on what the season brings). They're learning about fire management now and that connects back to classroom learning as well. They put cameras out and monitor what feral animals are in the areas, scoping that out. They send drones up and look at rock art and then they monitor the effect of dust on rock art near the road when all the tourists come up from now for four months. So, lots of practical and contextual [learning]. It's amazing really, when you start to look at it we could just write our own curriculum.'

Trimble says the school board, which has been operating for two years, has been fantastic in terms of supporting the work of educators, decision making and setting a clear direction. In keeping with the approach to student learning, the area of school governance is also contextualised – an old classroom has been turned into the boardroom, new vocabulary is listed, a seasonal calendar has been turned into the financial calendar (with important dates such as the school audit and monthly reports). ‘Everything we do we contextualise. Our financial reports we call the Money Story and we write it as a narrative. And now we've got [our Business Plan], it's just made life a lot easier.'

Reflecting on the journey to this point, Trimble says it's been a wonderful experience for all involved. ‘We've really stepped up and tried make a difference, and in the bush you've got to keep changing. You can't keep doing the same, it just doesn't work – you've got to keep moving and changing and looking for new partnerships and new ideas.'

As a school leader, what strategies do you have in place to improve student attendance? What have you found works best in your setting?

Thinking about your student cohort and industry needs, how could your school better work with the local community to develop further study and employment programs and pathways?