School Improvement Episode 44: A children’s university – Partnering with universities to improve outcomes

Thanks for downloading this podcast from Teacher magazine. I’m Dominique Russell.

We know that schools partnering with families, other education institutions, businesses and the wider school community can have a positive impact on student outcomes.

In this episode, we’re taking you to Yipirinya School in Alice Springs. Year 3 and 4 students at the school were recently participants in a trial of Charles Darwin University’s Children’s University – a program which offers students the opportunity to undertake learning experiences by visiting local businesses and organisations. We’re going to hear from Gavin Morris, Principal at Yipirinya School, about the impact participating in this program has had, and from Mariann Reu, project officer at Charles Darwin University, about the program’s design.

The Children’s University is a concept that began in the UK over 30 years ago and outside of recognising learning that is completed outside of school, it helps younger students to understand the post-school pathways available to them, and has also been shown to improve student attendance and achievement at school. We’ll kick off this episode by hearing all about Yipirinya School from principal Gavin Morris. Let’s jump in.

Gavin Morris: So I'm actually still a current employee of Charles Darwin University as a lecturer in the College of Education (it’s changed its name now). And when the opportunity at Yipirinya School came up to be the principal, I approached my bosses in the [department] at the time, who’s currently Ruth Wallace, and she was really supportive of the move.

So I’m on leave without pay from CDU, but currently, the principal at Yipirinya School and have been since October 2021. So I'm about to start my sixth term sitting in the principal seat of a very unique school.

Yipirinya is the only school of its type in the country. We teach in 4 Aboriginal languages: Western Arrernte, Central Arrernte, Luritja and Walpiri. And we offer teaching and learning from birth all the way through to year 10. So it's an amazing school set up by the Elders of the town camps in Alice Springs back in the 70s.

There was a feeling that mainstream schooling wasn't really providing the educational and cultural outcomes for those really nuanced circumstances that these town camp kids need and deserve and thrive for. So there was a strong battle. In fact, it went all way through to the High Court in relation to getting the funding to set up Yipirinya School. Then, 1978, it was established.

So, very unique. Teachers in the 4 Aboriginal languages set up for Aboriginal kids and families by Aboriginal Elders. Has an Aboriginal board. And at the moment, I'm the principal at Yipirinya with the idea that I provide some succession planning in terms of ensuring that there's leadership capacity, at a point where we can get Aboriginal principals to step into this role.

We've got 4 amazing assistant principals, which have just come on board, 3 of which are Aboriginal women and they’re fantastic powerhouses and already good enough to step into my role now. It's just about ensuring that we continue the good work across the last 12 months.

We've just tripled our enrolment in 2022. So when I arrived October ‘21, we had 100 students’ active enrolments on our books. Now we've got 300, which represents the biggest number of students in the history of the school.

And ensuring that there's a pathway for Aboriginal leadership, not just from the very top level, at the principal level, all the way through. So yeah, very unique school, very high-profile school in Alice Springs for a number of different reasons, mostly positive, but not always. And yeah, really important school for Central Australia.

DR: Is there anything else that’s quite unique to your school context in the way of teaching and learning?

GM: Yeah, absolutely. Two things in particular. Our culture – so we've got around 100 staff and approximately 68 to 70 Aboriginal staff. And because we teach in 4 Aboriginal languages – so we teach in our Australian curriculum and our non-Indigenous teachers are actually referred to as ESL Teachers (English as second language) because literally English is a second or third or fourth language for almost all of our students and staff.

Because we got such a huge cultural equity in the school, we also generate our own resources in language. So we have a Literacy Production Centre where we create educational resources in the 4 different languages and the language teachers teach with those.

And we've got some really exciting projects in 2023 coming up in relation to our amazing archive which we've just got electronically up and running. Archival footage and video and audio dating all the way back to 1978 and 1980 – it's phenomenal – and how we can transform that archival material into the current technology. We're using artificial intelligence and virtual reality software to – it's not going to make that footage or content any better – but to transform it into a way that's making it totally engaging in 2023.

So Yipirinya School leases out a couple of shops in our town mall and we’ve set up an installation space as an art gallery in one of those shop fronts. So that's a real point of difference.

And the other, I think, significant point of difference is our Happy Heart Hub. All of our students are Aboriginal students, all 300 of them, we’re a totally Indigenous school. And almost all of our students come from town camps which surround Alice Springs, so around, we've got – in central Australia, Alice Springs is the second largest centre in the Northern Territory, behind Darwin, and surrounding Alice Springs there's a number of town camps. There's 16 of them in fact, and 95% of our students come from those town camps. And we also have some that come further abroad from outstations, particularly to the north. So our bus to the north, that goes to a place called Burt Creek and Snake Well and Corkwood Bore. They're 2- and 1/2-hour round trips.

So we send our bus out in the morning, at about 5:30 in the morning, and that bus comes back with students at 9 o'clock, and we'll do exactly the same thing with that bus. So we've got 7 bus drivers that cover around 7,500 kilometres a week. It costs the school $600,000 a year to run our buses to get our kids to and from school.

But our other really important difference is to ensure that those barriers are attended to. Any barriers to learning, to culture, to sport, to art, are attended to. And distance is certainly one of them and transport’s another. But ensuring that if there's any sort of barrier to learning that can be addressed in terms of providing additional support at school, that we're able to do that.

And what we created at the start of last year is what we call our Happy Heart Hub. It's led by our occupational therapist, Sian Hughes, and she's got now a team of 10 full-time staff underneath her, and that whole role is to ensure that all of our students have any access or any barriers to learning and to culture and to art and sport attended to.

So if that means that there's sort of one-on-one support or change to the way that education is provided for them, great, that's provided. If there's behavioural support at the time (or proactively) that's done by experts in that field.

And also in relation to linking into NDIS [National Disability Insurance Scheme] and assessment and diagnosis pathways. So that's happened as well. So inclusion and relationships and culture is a really significant part of what we do at Yipirinya and I resource that project in a way that reflects that significance.

DR: So Mariann, thank you for joining us on this podcast episode. For our listeners who may not have heard of it before. Can you give us a brief introduction to the Children's University and your involvement with that program?

Mariann Reu: So I am employed as the Children's University Project Officer here in Alice Springs. And CDU first joined the partnership in 2018 and has been operating the program in Darwin with over 11 schools.

However, last year they decided that it was the kind of program that would be really good for Alice Springs. So we piloted it here. And so Children's University is this really innovative program that engages children and young people and helps them to develop learning through exploring lots of out of school learning.

It aims to target children 7 through to 14 years old. And it's a little bit different in that it's not focused, sort of, on academic learning. What it's hoping to do is help children to build strengths and passions that may end up leading to careers but may also just end up building their self-confidence and their self-esteem and helping them to feel good about being a learner.

So it first came about in the UK, back in the mid-90s and in 2013, the University of Adelaide decided that they would bring the program to Australia. And since then they've grown the project from just Adelaide through to all over Australia, New Zealand and Mauritius. So nearly every state in Australia has a university that has partnered with the University of Adelaide so that we've got this wide web of opportunities and learning across Australia, and excitingly now with New Zealand and Mauritius.

So in 2020, when we decided to pilot in Alice Springs, we wanted to start small. My position is part time, so we just selected 2 schools and those schools were Yipirinya School and Living Waters School. And the way that we worked with them was to help them set up things within the program where we have school clubs. So I'm not sure if, when you were young at school, there used to be things like chess clubs, science club, dance club, choir. All the different sort of learning that already happens but sometimes isn't recognised and celebrated enough. And then there's also clubs such as sporting clubs, music lessons and things that children already do and have within their world.

So we encourage children to record that learning. But we also have what we call Learning Destinations, and they are additional organisations outside the community that sign children up. And basically the children use a Passport to Learning where they record any extra learning they do, and then at the end of the year we recognise that in a graduation ceremony.

DR: So let's explore some more of more details of those elements of the program that you've just mentioned there. So with these Learning Destinations, you're partnering with local businesses and organisations to create those destinations. Can you give me one or 2 examples of some businesses and organisations that you've partnered with and also perhaps a bit more of an in-depth example of what a learning destination actually looks like?

MR: So we've partnered so far with 12 organisations in Alice Springs and that allows children to go on the weekends with their families to the various sites. And the organisations have worked with myself to set up little activities or learning opportunities. Sometimes they already have them in place, and it was just simply a matter of formalising the partnership.

But places like Araluen Art Gallery, they were really keen on having a public outface, but they hadn't sort of had anyone on staff that had that educational point of view. So I worked with them and we set up like a sculpture scavenger hunt. So they have a large sculpture display area, so we set up little clues and hints and made it into a formal activity. We also did some art appreciation activities where children were asked to explore the sort of different various aspects of art on a tour as they travelled around the gallery. We also had a really good look at Indigenous art and talked about the symbols and meanings, and then there's an activity that they can do that they can identify those symbols and further unpack the meaning behind the paintings that are on display in the gallery.

Other organisations that we've worked with are Desert Park where children can go along and experience different sessions and learning that was already in place. So the children just formally record them when they've been visiting those places.

The graduation is certainly one of the major aspects that makes it such an exciting program for families and children. We hold the ceremony within a big hall, and the children are given graduation gowns with a tassel. And it's not just a given that they will receive this. So the work that they do throughout the year is how they can track their attainment. Very similar to a graduation course. So the children must have completed at least 30 hours of additional learning in their first year within the program, and that entitles them then to graduate with a bronze certificate.

And the process continues so that children who had earnt, say, 65 hours, they are eligible then for a silver certificate. And then the students that went above and beyond and completed 200 hours are eligible for a gold certificate. And as the years progress, they move from the award to the certificate, to a diploma and then a degree.

And the program actually encourages continued engagement with us. So we have also built in the idea of coming back to those learning destinations and working as a volunteer. If it's one that you really felt passionate about and enjoyed, particularly the school-based activities like a Lego club or the singing or the music club and things like that.

The parents get to see their children in a different light, and certainly the children who struggle with their learning get to see themselves as achievers and they get to see themselves as attaining things. It may not be in the school sense of things, but that's where learning can really fire off and we can see children really progress.

I mentioned before that we had partnered with Yipirinya School and it was a really lovely process last year, watching the children who, in the initial stages, were really only just becoming aware about what a university was and what that meant. And by the end of the year, they were so excited and so keen every week when they were arriving to do activities. They were really engaged and interested and they actually loved going out and chatting to the people that work here at the university. And those kinds of things.

So in that short time I saw a big difference and I just can't wait for this year where we're going to have an additional 3 schools, hopefully, and see that expand across the Alice Springs community. We'll be working hard to continue to celebrate learning out of school for children and help them to build strong passions about the world and about themselves.

DR: The learning experiences that are undertaken in the Children's University are designed specifically to have links to university learning and courses. Can you flesh out a little bit more what kind of links these are and why that as well is an important element?

MR: Well, quite often if we don't know about things we can't dream and strive for them. So the program is really about nurturing those successful and independent learners. And the process of learning in, in our context is that at some point we will end up in a career or a workforce or a workplace. And if we know what we're good at and we know what our strengths are through the activities that we do in our life, we can apply that then to what we hope to dream about and set goals for.

So we don't strongly force our university on children, but we certainly incorporate within the conversations with children, about if this is an area that you're really passionate about, these are the sorts of jobs that you can dream about and aspire to.

For example, a student might be really engaged in gardening and love plants and so we can link that then to a whole heap of professions and areas of study. For example, botany in the science world, landscape gardening in the VET industry. There are so many different aspects and opportunities that if you know what does exist in a sense, then they can attain that.

And we've got really strong evidence collected now by the University of Adelaide showing that children are achieving better in school as a result. So they're seeing that there's children now motivated. And it's seen a slight increase in attendance at schools and I'm certainly observing a really big difference in our wider community. Children are feeling more aware of what opportunities are out there. And they're also building really lovely relationships and I think that's really important in the Alice Springs context.

DR: And so Gavin, let's turn back to you now. In the experience at Yipirinya school, why did your school get involved in the Children's University program and when did that happen?

GM: Education means everything to me. It changed my life. I won’t go into too much detail, but my childhood probably reflects, in a lot of ways, a lot of the challenges and barriers that the kids at Yipirinya have to go through.

And I got myself into university through a Bachelor of Education and onwards from there. And that's changed my life. And certainly, like I mentioned earlier, I'm still a full-time employee of Charles Darwin University. And I think if there's a university in Australia, who should be at the peak of their powers in terms of looking around the country and going well, who is it? What tertiary institutions are the ones who, where is that best case model of universities working with Aboriginal communities? It should be Charles Darwin University.

And decolonising those places and making them safe for our students to feel like their world views are acknowledged and valued as opposed to, traditionally, universities and Aboriginal communities, go into these places, research the people, take knowledge out of the community and the university’s never seen again.

So definitely it was a positive way for our community because once you open a relationship between 2 organisations – you've got the direct contact between the Children's University and what was our year 3 and 4 class. But you got all the other people, the whole school community watching and looking and observing.

So when you open the door to an organisation like Charles Darwin University, in some ways you are taking a risk in terms of what that can look like. But the opposite side of that coin is that you create a safety and a trusting relationship with an organisation, and a pathway where students can actually see themselves going, ‘Okay, I might not have gone to university. I might not have made it through the non-Indigenous colonialised barriers’ that all people, but particularly Aboriginal people, have to overcome to get there. Let's bring the university to them.

So from that perspective, it was fantastic to have our students involved with the university in that way. We also, we run our secondary class out of the Alice Springs campus with CDU as well. So there's a number of different ways that we really linked in, but with the Children's University, it was a way to also formalise a lot of the learning that was going on outside of school hours as well.

So we're a very different school too. We offer a variety of different early experiences outside of what you would experience in a mainstream school. For example, across the holiday break, and across the whole school year in fact, we run a sunset school program targeted at very disengaged students. Those who are in contact with the police, who might be going in or coming out of juvenile detention. And to ensure that we’re providing access to Charles Darwin University for all of our students in a way that is positive, but also formalising a lot of the activities that were going on outside of school hours anyway. Recognising them in a way that links the 2 organisations together.

DR: So I'm interested in any feedback that you've received from students, their parents, because we know that they're involved with this as well (their parents and carers) or any of your other staff. What do they think of the involvement, what’s some of their feedback been?

GM: It's been entirely positive. We’re a multi-generational school, so when you have one student who might be year 3 or 4 doing something, there's an excellent chance they've got older and younger siblings in the school, an aunty or an uncle teaching in the school, or grandma. So, you know, there's multiple examples of 3 or 4 generations of people at Yipirinya all from the one family. So there's a ripple effect that goes all the way through to communities.

It’s been really positive. If I'm being totally honest, a lot of our community don't know a lot about Charles Darwin University or tertiary institutions, haven’t set foot into the campus. And vice versa. Charles Darwin University hasn't done a lot of work with Yipirinya. So yeah, the feedbacks being fantastic. It was a bit of a trial year. So we focused on our year 3/4 class and we had half a dozen students graduate and there was a formal graduation at one of the schools in Alice Springs. And then we had a secondary graduation at Yipirinya.

So the whole school and all the staff got to see our year 3 and 4 students in the gowns with the certificates and all the rest of it, and around a moment of celebration that recognises and centres Aboriginal values. It wasn't getting the sandpaper on the edges so we can fit into a non-Indigenous tertiary institution. It was Aboriginal kids and their values and their worldviews at the centre and it was a celebration of those worldviews from what have been traditionally, in the past, quite a Western European privileging of worldview.

So community perspectives have been fantastic. Looking forward to seeing how we can further roll out the program and get more access to students across more age levels in 2023 and beyond. Because I think that's an important next step, that we don't have fantastic programs like this parachute in, have a great 12 months and then take off.

So, my perspective, if you're running program in Aboriginal communities, they should have longevity. They should have sustainability and they should have some acknowledgement that this is going on for the long term. And once our Aboriginal communities bought into that, which they have, they're very keen to be part of it.

… The early signs definitely are that that there's improvement in educational outcomes and in behaviour standards and student engagement. All those things and for good reason.

And the challenge for us now is to ensure that we replicate that, at the very least, to ensure that the new bunch of students who come into the program and the ones who already exist in it, have a program that is met with educational appropriateness. It's culturally appropriate and to ensure that – I was working with Mariann this year to ensure that the very first version of this iteration of this was going to be a successful one. So we intentionally picked particular year levels knowing that that was most likely where it's going to succeed, and now we can now that we've learned some things about what works really well, and some things that we probably would do differently in 2023 and beyond and really looking forward to how it evolves going forward.

… I guess the last thing to say is that, given my passion for education and how it's changed my life, that I also offer the same opportunities for all of our staff.

So we've got 26 – we’ve got around 100 staff at Yipirinya and 26 of those staff are now studying in some capacity. Almost entirely all of those 26 are Aboriginal staff. We've got 6 in particular, if we're going to sort of single one group out, who are studying a Bachelor of Education through a program set up through the government. So that's the adult linkage to Charles Darwin University at the very top, where the mothers and the grandmothers and the aunties sit.

And then you've also then got a pathway to 6- and 7- and 8-, 9-year-olds. Potentially you've got a pathway, multi-generational pathway, into CDU and vice versa. Totally acknowledging also that CDU have got an amazing resource at Yipirinya. You just cannot replicate this context and it's not replicated anywhere in Australia. So acknowledging there’s 2-way benefit here.

To have such a multi-generational and have access to that where you've got mothers and grandmothers studying in a Bachelor Education for example, and there’s a variety of other qualifications through CDU as well, all the way through to the little year 2s and 3s who are throwing the cap and donning the gown and carrying certificates around with pride. And you know it's a really exciting space.

MR: During one of the days when the students were at the school, the staff from Yipirinya were actually there on a study break or a study session. And so I'd been saying to them all along, ‘I know your teachers, they've all been coming here and they've been working hard’ and it just so happened one day that they were at the library when we were passing through the library and that it was a real celebration that the children got to see those staff in the computer labs studying doing their work, and I think that happiness from the staff as well to see the students. Like, there was real joy and celebration just that day in itself.

… And I agree with Gavin also in that the knowledge that Yipirinya holds in terms of language and culture and what the rest of our community needs to understand and open our eyes to. The opportunities to celebrate that language and celebrate that learning through Children's University (or without Children's University, just through the Yipirinya School in the community) I think is really essential to broadening everybody's understandings and perspectives. So yeah, I think it's really great the way that Gavin has not just signed up Children's Uni, but he's also engaged in his staff and promoted and worked to strengthen the opportunities for his adult staff. It’s really great.

DR: And was that, was that an explicit aim of the program when it was being developed or has that just been something that's occurred quite naturally?

GM: From my perspective, both from CDU and from Yipirinya, it's important, from the trust of my staff in the team and the Yipirinya community that if I'm basically saying, ‘yeah, this is something which I would consider to be a valuable project to be a part of’, it needs to go well. And it needs to be sustainable. And it needs to have multiple outcomes, not just for CDU, but it needs to have multiple outcomes for Yipirinya. Certainly the core values around what Children's University does, and, in 2022, what for the year 3 and 4 class? Absolutely. That's the core. That that's where we're spending our time.

But the spinoff effects need to be acknowledged as well and opportunities that aren’t missed. And as much as this is a fantastic program, and Mariann does an amazing job in coordinating it, in my view, this should be considered part of the course. And relationships between Aboriginal communities and tertiary institutions around the country shouldn't just be from the context of those doing the research on those being researched, particularly in Aboriginal communities. That universities actually think creatively in a variety of different ways of how they can connect and engage and build relationships with community.

And potentially, from the university’s point of view, from self-interest point of view, why don't we generate the relationship with CDU from these kids, when they are 6- and 7- and 8-year-olds. By the time you're trying to sign them up as adults, they've been involved with the institution for 15 years. They feel safe. They feel like they belong. They feel like they've got identity. So there's a variety of different reasons why this is a fantastic program and yeah, really looking forward to seeing it evolve.

That’s all for this episode. Thanks for listening. We’ll be back with a new episode very soon. In the meantime, we’d really appreciate if you’d subscribe to our podcast channel on Spotify or Apple podcasts and leave us a rating and a review. It’s a big help to our team and the podcast.

As a teacher or school leader in the P-6 area, think about the career aspirations of your students. Are they aware of the range of careers that are available to them? Have you considered partnering with a tertiary institution to build knowledge and awareness about career opportunities?