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products of disadvantage and exhibit their frustration in a number of ways, such as challenging behaviour or by being withdrawn.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.
* * *Acknowledgements: AEU News