Lessons from the postcodes of disadvantage

May 16, 2016 by

By Leah Young –

Research from Jesuit Social Services shows disadvantage is entrenched in some areas of Victoria, presenting huge challenges for dedicated teachers. So, if you had a choice of teaching in a well-resourced school with middle-class kids and parents, why would you choose a much tougher gig?

What does a disadvantaged student in Victoria look like? Jesuit Social Services has identified and mapped areas of disadvantage and struggle for more than a decade. Its 2015  Dropping Off the Edge report, commissioned jointly with Catholic Social Services Australia, shows Victoria’s most disadvantaged areas are Broadmeadows, Corio, Doveton, Frankston North, Maryborough or Morwell.

School-age children in these areas are likely to be from a family that endures one or more of the following: unemployment, criminal convictions, disability, low education, child maltreatment, family violence or psychiatric admissions.

Residents of the country’s most marginalised communities carry a disproportionately high level of disadvantage that severely limits their chance to thrive.

Julie Edwards, Jesuit Social Services CEO

For students trying to learn within these struggling families, they may or may not eat breakfast before attending school, may or may not have a pair of shoes to wear to school, they may never be certain a parent will be at home when they return from school.

It’s a stark reality and one that hasn’t improved over the past eight years. In fact, according to Dropping Off the Edge 2015, around 25 of the state’s 40 most disadvantaged postcodes were also found to be most disadvantaged in the 2007 study. And 10 of the current top 12 most disadvantaged locations were in the most disadvantaged list in 2007.

“What our research into locational disadvantage over the past decade has revealed is that a small number of communities across Victoria, and indeed Australia, are carrying disproportionately high levels of disadvantage,” says Julie Edwards, Jesuit Social Services CEO.

“Previously the government and service response to this has been to focus on improving outcomes in a small number of these issues, however many residents in these areas are experiencing a complex, interconnecting web of disadvantage that requires more intensive and sustained intervention.”

For a child living in a postcode with such entrenched disadvantage, it can be an uphill battle to not just get to school with a mindset to learn, but to stay at school to break from the tradition of previous generations.

“In terms of education, we know that some students have the ability to transcend the disadvantaged communities they live in to achieve high results,” says Edwards. “But, as this research illustrates, residents of the country’s most marginalised communities carry a disproportionately high level of disadvantage that severely limits their chance to thrive.”

So what does this mean for the teachers who teach these students? Is it the toughest of tough gigs, similar to that of Mark Thackeray in To Sir, with Love? What do they have to deal with, what hopes do they have for their students, and what strategies do they put in place to maintain their own commitment and equilibrium?

Charles Williams: Teach & Learning Coach
Hume Central Secondary College, Broadmeadows

For Charles Williams, it’s important to provide a “best possible learning environment” for his students daily. “Providing warmth, structure, consistency and reliability helps us to have a safe and positive environment where our students can thrive,” he says.

Like many teachers who work in a “disadvantaged” postcode, Williams has a positive outlook. “Every student, regardless of their postcode or income, should have access to the best education that we as a country can offer. Personally, I take great delight in working in an area where I feel I’m positively contributing to future opportunities and successes for my students. My job is a wonderful mix of theory and practice, with the chance to work with individuals, large groups, and the community as a whole.”

Last year, of the 174 students enrolled in VCE at Hume Central, 1.8 per cent achieved a score of 40+, while the median score VCE score was 24. This, Williams says, is proof that kids from disadvantaged postcodes can, and do, succeed in and out of school.

“We have a very high VCE completion rate, and last year over half of those students went on to a university placement. Our dux and others score ATARs in the 90s and go on to study science, engineering, and other subjects at the University of Melbourne and elsewhere.”

Williams, who trained at Teach for Australia, believes a passion for teaching is vital. “I have a love of lifelong learning, and teaching gives me a chance to do that every day, whether it’s reading the latest research and thinking about how to apply it my classes or discussing with colleagues about how we’re going to hook our students in to our next lesson.”

Teach for Australia CEO, Melodie Potts Rosevear, believes that teachers can make positive, transformational change. “Teachers like Charles can be heroes, but it’s even better if you have a succession of them. And even better if those teachers are in a school that has a collective vision, which they’re all working towards. And even better again, if that school is in a community that is contributing in pursuit of that vision.”

Williams says that while the college doesn’t implement anything that is specifically for students from severely disadvantaged homes, it does provide programs that work for students of all backgrounds.  “We have a strong academic program but also focus on teaching social and emotional lessons for our students, and this is supported by a positive set of expectations that we teach and reinforce all the time. The college offers a breakfast program, as well as support with uniform and materials if needed.”

The Smith Family also works with the school to assist students with specific needs and to provide educational programs to support students’ learning, including mentoring and life skills.

Nicole Carder: VCAL Coordinator
Kurnai College, Morwell

Nicole Carder believes the issues she and other teachers face at Kurnai College in Morwell, are as wide and varied as they are at any secondary college. However, at Kurnai the issues affecting students include lack of transport, as well as limited disposable income for healthcare, school resources and extracurricular activities. “And we do see students without secure housing arrangements which can lead to absences, difficulty building links with the school and the wider community, and gaps in their learning.”

Typical, and required, school experiences such as work experience are also challenging. “Due to the high unemployment rate in the area employers find it difficult to take on students for work experience and placement, and are also reluctant to employ students in a part-time capacity given the uncertainty of future work within their industry.”

Carder, who worked as a youth development officer with local government for 15 years, notes that the main differences between a “disadvantaged” and a “non-disadvantaged” postcode is that advantaged students have improved access to resources (physical, personal and financial), wider access to mentors and job networks, more secure housing and transport, and more connection to the local community through social activities, sporting clubs, service clubs and voluntary organisations.

However Carder, like most teachers, thinks that despite this the forecast isn’t all doom and gloom. “I have high hopes for every student that I teach and every student within our school. Despite the obvious challenges some of our students face, what is amazing is their perseverance and willingness to work hard to achieve their goals. These goals and subsequent wins might look different for each student, but teachers provide a quality curriculum and plenty of support to assist each student to meet their full potential.”

On a professional level, Carder has found that working and living in Morwell has helped her develop a good understanding of the community, including its strengths and weaknesses. “I listen to what the kids are talking about and are concerned about, and what employers are telling us kids need to succeed in the workforce.”

On a personal level, Carder believes a good sense of humour is paramount. “Having a laugh with staff and students is important to keep things in perspective. I think enjoying time with your students and establishing positive relationships with them and their families makes it easier to develop trusting, effective working partnerships.”

Ultimately, Carder acknowledges that Kurnai is in a disadvantaged area. Getting to school and remaining focused and motivated is a daily challenge for some of her students. “It is, however, rewarding to see them turn up day in, day out and come with such hope and optimism. Their drive and perseverance is something to be admired and is one of the reasons I became an educator.”

Mike Shanks: Middle Years Teacher
Mahogany Rise Primary School, Frankston North

Mike Shanks is aware the impact disadvantage has on students and, along with fellow staff, tries to encourage students.Mike Shanks is aware the impact disadvantage has on students and, along with fellow staff, tries to encourage students. Photo: Supplied

“I’m fortunate to work in a school that has strong and supportive leadership who have a passion for working with challenging students, along with an excellent understanding of the impact disadvantage has on children,” says Mike Shanks, who’s been teaching Middle School for two years.

“This is also visible in the staff who work at Mahogany Rise, by seeing their passion and empathy towards students who don’t have the same opportunities as students in a different postcode might have.”

Mahogany Rise Primary School is in Frankston North, where incomes are lower than the Melbourne average, and unemployment and crime rates higher.

These factors, Shanks says, present many challenges, which include higher amounts of absenteeism, student violence (towards peers and occasionally towards staff), working with a proportionally higher number of children who are medicated for conditions such as ADHD or autism spectrum disorder, student hygiene issues, diet and exercise (sometimes children arrive at school with little or no food), and working to address the effects of trauma.

“Many students arrive at school having had less support in developing appropriate social skills that are important for the school environment,” says Shanks.

He and the team at Mahogany Rise believe that gaining as much information as possible about each student’s life at home and their individual needs, gives a greater understanding of how to best individualise their learning. “Managing a classroom with a high number of challenging students is made much easier with the support of our Educational Support [ES] workers,” says Shanks.

“Every classroom has an ES staff member who can help manage difficult students. Attending Personnel Development like ‘Bridges out of Poverty’ has also enabled a better understanding of the environment in which we work.”

For Shanks, making his expectations clear at the start of the year helps him get the best out of his students. “My job is to help them to achieve their best, even though what is achieved looks different for each student.”

And while some days can be tough, there are others that make it all worthwhile. “There is no doubt that sometimes it feels like an uphill battle. However there are many more times when you feel like you’re making great strides forward. And it’s important to remember that even though we’re classified as a ‘disadvantaged suburb’, there are some brilliant students who achieve highly. Unfortunately this is the exception rather than the norm.”

Having a strong network around you, in and out of the school, is something Shanks values. He also believes it’s important to have an open communication with the principal, and leadership and wellbeing teams. “Being able to debrief with colleagues and bounce ideas off each other for each student or situation is critical. And having worked in disadvantaged communities for a number of years, I’ve gradually learnt to not take each situation too personally.”

The school offers a wide variety of programs to help support the students including a daily Breakfast Club, peer relationship-building activities supported by surrounding schools, a weekly lunchtime program run by local Council Youth Workers, Kids Matter – a flexible, whole-school approach to help improve children’s mental health and wellbeing – a free dental van and a food pantry.

Shanks proudly adds, that in 2013 the school established an Australian-first “crowd-funded” overseas learning experience, which meant two groups of students had the opportunity to experience homestays and school life in London and Paris. Another project is being planned for later in 2016.

Source: Lessons from the postcodes of disadvantage

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