The Guardian July 25, 2001


Public education: inclusive and flexible

The all-embracing nature of the public education system means it 
provides opportunities for all children, no matter their ethnic background, 
religion, disabilities or income. The following story about the Bendigo 
Teaching Unit, by Australian Education Union journalist Jason Wallace, is 
an example of the inclusiveness and flexibility of the public school 
system.

Before leaving for the mid-year break, nine children farewelled their 
temporary teachers and contemplated returning to their mainstream 
classrooms. They were children who had an air of confidence  proud of 
what they had achieved during Term 2, especially the close relationship 
they had maintained with their supportive teachers.

The teachers, Charlie, Ann and Mandy, are the three staff members of the 
Bendigo Teaching Unit (BTU). The BTU is an alternative setting for middle 
year students who are having difficulties in mainstream schools. Staff at 
the unit concentrate on providing a positive education environment that 
emphasises success and optimism.

"We run an alternative program for kids who are doing it tough in the 
classroom", says Charlie. "We work on self-esteem and confidence, social 
skills and behaviour. The whole program is dedicated to making these kids 
feel better about themselves."

School social welfare teams identify students who would benefit from 
attending the unit. Children are referred due to poor school attendance, 
learning difficulties, and other problems. Many have troubled backgrounds 
that have led to their classroom disadvantage.

"There are many stories I could tell you that would bring tears to your 
eyes about what some of these kids face", says Charlie. "They are products 
of disadvantage and exhibit their frustration in a number of ways, such as 
challenging behaviour or by being withdrawn. But if they are given a chance 
their behaviour alters. Many of these kids didn't feel optimistic about 
life but respond positively to being made to believe they are worthwhile."

Students who agree to attend the unit must accept the house rules. The key 
requirement, according to Charlie, is that they "have to start challenging 
some of the issues causing their problems".

Written assignments, woodwork and jewelry making projects are some of the 
tasks undertaken by students. Teachers demand that all work be completed, 
despite many students not being accustomed to finishing assignments. "We 
set fair rules and expectations and don't compromise on those", says 
Charlie.

The BTU has provided an alternative setting for schools in the Bendigo area 
for 18 years and has catered for over 300 students. It has been based on 
portables at the regional office for the past five years.

Until the year 2000 the unit provided for Bendigo 7-12 colleges and only 
dealt with children in Years 7 and 8. It was centrally funded  colleges 
were not required to make financial contributions.

In 2001 however, the unit became a resource for the entire Central 
District, stretching as far as Echuca and Castlemaine and incorporating 80 
schools that are now required to contribute funds if they use the unit.

Charlie says these changes have dramatically altered the operation of the 
unit. For terms one and two this year two colleges referred students to 
attend for an entire term in groups of eight or nine. The unit will 
undertake more diverse work in the second semester.

In Term three the team will work with Year 7 students having problems as 
they begin secondary schooling as well as travel to Charlton one day a week 
to teach Vocational Education and Training (VET) and TAFE style classes 
with students in Years 5-9.

The trio may also run a grief and loss program  the three staff members 
have all completed appropriate training  in which they will work with 
children whose development has been blocked by difficulty in dealing with 
divorce, separation or death.

"We've had to broaden our scope but there's still only the same number of 
staff", says Charlie. Students attending the unit full-time arrive between 
9 and 9.30am and leave at 3.20pm. Teachers stay with the students the 
entire day  morning tea and lunchtime are shared experiences.

Charlie says students relax due to the intimacy and size of the group and 
tend "not to bring their baggage with them". Child and Adolescent Mental 
Health Services psychologist Christine Maltby currently visits the unit 
twice a week. "We believe the unit has fantastic influence and are glad to 
support the staff", she says.

By spending time in the class, Christine can observe the children's 
behaviour and suggest referrals for those who may have mental health 
problems and monitor children on medication. "It's a luxury to be with the 
kids when they're acting naturally. You often miss the subtle changes 
unless you're standing next to them", she says.

While she praises the mainstream school system, she believes that the 
opportunity to be in a small group at an alternative setting is essential 
for some children. "They're allowed to step out of their lives for a 
while", she enthuses.

Christine sometimes works with older youths that were once students at the 
unit. During intensive therapy she sometimes attempts to bring them back to 
a time when they felt success. She says their visit to the unit is often 
the point they return to.

The unit avoids mainstream methods of determining success  such as 
grading academic performance. Instead students are rewarded for decreased 
attention seeking, improved attendance and participation, cooperative 
behaviour and attitude changes. "A lot of them are not engaged at school. A 
lot of these kids couldn't last in class. Now they are positive and know 
people are concerned about them.

"But you're not going to have a born again child in ten weeks after 14 
years of neglect. You might have a kid  and we often hear this  who has 
had a positive experience through schooling for the first time."

Charlie understands the mainstream's incapacity to offer the patience and 
attention to the students he deals with. "They can't afford to give them 
attention", he says. "You can understand why a teacher with 25 kids in a 
class says `get out!'. They haven't got the time to delve into the social 
and economic environment these children are coming from to understand their 
actions."

At the end of the term the students were proud of their completed projects. 
Three of the Year 7 boys reflected on the experience. "It's helped me with 
my work and made me feel more confident. I've done more here than I 
normally would and put more effort into it", says Heath.

"At school it's different. I don't take much notice because of my friends, 
but now I'm learning to help others if they're annoying people  just 
ignore them and concentrate on your work and you'll get the most out of it. 
It's easier here because there's fewer kids and three teachers."

Heath says he is confident about his ability to return to mainstream 
schooling. "I've learnt a lot over this term. How to feel confident and 
keep doing stuff and not quit."

Another student, Jamie, is also enthusiastic about the teaching 
environment. "The teachers help you more because they've got more time to 
help you."

There is a consensus amongst the students that they will make an effort 
when they return to school. "I guess I'm prepared but I wish I could stay 
here", says Mitchell.

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Acknowledgements: AEU News

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