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St Mary’s involvement in the Linking Schools and Early Years project

Richard Mucha
Principal, St Mary’s Primary School

This week Curriculum Leadership publishes the second of two articles on the Linking Schools and Early Years project in Victoria. An earlier feature article gave an overview of the project. This week’s article describes the implementation and impact of the project at one of the participating schools, St Mary’s Primary School in Hastings.

The purpose of a school is to help families educate their children. Up to age nine the influence of parents on the wellbeing and life chances of their children is far greater than that of school (Otero and West-Burnham). Thus to really impact, schools must develop strong, positive relationships with parents and work together with them, managing influences of social class, poverty, gender, ethnicity, disability, and students’ different levels of resilience, motivation, ability and school readiness, in order to maximise possibilities for their children.

It is with these beliefs in mind that St Mary’s Primary School in Hastings, Victoria has taken part in the Linking Schools and Early Years project. The project aims to ensure that children enter formal education ready to learn and develop. Running separately in Hastings, Maribyrnong and Geelong, the project includes government and Catholic primary schools, early years services and local communities, and endeavours to develop a new model of collaboration to overcome barriers to children’s learning and development. The project is being led by the Centre for Community Child Health, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute at the Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne. The R.E. Ross Trust is funding the project. It will be externally evaluated by the Social Policy and Research Centre at the University of New South Wales.
 

The Hastings context

St Mary’s is a small, semi-rural, Catholic primary school (116 students in five grades) in Hastings on the shores of Western Port Bay, Victoria. Our clientele are mainly of Anglo-Saxon descent.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics Census 2006 shows that the proportion of single-parent families in Hastings is 25.8% compared with 15.4 % in metropolitan Melbourne; 62.5% of individuals over the age of 15 earn less than $600 per week, compared with 53.1% in metropolitan Melbourne. The proportion of residents who have completed Year 12 or equivalent is less than half that of metropolitan Melbourne. Hastings also has one of the lowest attendance rates for Maternal and Child Health visits in Victoria (ABS Census 2006).

On the Australian Early Development Index (AEDI) 2005, 37.4% of children in Hastings were found to be vulnerable on one or more of the domains examined (physical health and wellbeing, social knowledge and competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive development, communication skills and general knowledge) compared to 17.5% throughout the Mornington Peninsula and 22.6% nationally (AEDI 2005).
 

St Mary’s participation in the project

St Mary’s has been involved in Linking Schools and Early Years since the project’s inception in 2007. Midway through 2008 a liaison officer was appointed to assist the Hastings group, lightening the load of our planning committee and facilitating practitioner meetings. St Mary’s sees participation in the project as a way to further its broader goals of making the school more accessible to parents and students and creating a greater connection among students, parents and families with the school.

In addition to facilitating children’s transition to primary school we are also aiming to further help older students, especially boys, connect more deeply with the school as they prepare for secondary education. The senior school curriculum was redesigned in response to concerns that boys at this level were not strongly connected to the school and a youth group for Year 5 and 6 students, and also for youth in their first three years of secondary education, was started to assist in the continuing social engagement of young people with the school, parish and the town.

Acting on the results of a survey of the school community, the school has varied the times when School Council meetings are held, to allow a wider range of parents to attend.
 

Results of project participation to date

Many improvements have been made to the processes and practices at St Mary’s through our involvement in the Linking Schools and Early Years project. At the most basic level, involvement has given us a chance to review what we were doing and determine ‘where the holes were’ in terms of parental and student engagement with the school.

Our 2008 school plan reflected the impact of the Linking Schools and Early Years project. New initiatives for the year, listed as points 1 and points 5 to 9, all directly or indirectly reflect the project’s influence. The plan covered the following elements:

  1. All staff were on after-school yard duty for the first 10 minutes for the first five weeks of Term 1. Staff not actually rostered onto yard duty interacted informally with parents, getting to know each other in a less threatening (for parents) environment.
  2. Children, parents and staff from all grade levels, as well as ex-students, were invited to a free Welcome sausage sizzle/twilight swimming sports and novelty event during Term 1.
  3. Children, parents, ex-students and staff participated in the Western Port Festival parade in Term 1, dressing in theme for the occasion.
  4. Free afternoon coffee and weekly chats, run by the Deputy Principal, were offered to parents/friends of the school. They commenced in Term 2.
  5. A youth group was set up, at no cost to families, held Tuesday evenings for children in Years 5-9, commencing in Term 2. Children from St Mary’s and other primary and secondary schools in the area attended. This quickly proved so popular that it now operates two evenings per week.
  6. As described above, alternate evening and afternoon School Council meetings are now rostered to encourage participation by more people.
  7. Free playgroup/coffee afternoons were held for existing families and those starting in 2009, run by one of our teacher aides, who also runs the youth group. Other staff members occasionally drop in.
  8. Kindergarten, childcare centre and Peninsula Community Health Service staff were invited to visit St Mary’s to have a tour of the school and discuss ways in which we could work together to assist the children/families in our care (eg use of school facilities during or after school hours at no or very minimal cost). The initial invitation letter was followed up by personal visits.
  9. Kindergartens and childcare centres were invited to bring children to watch the play The Night Garden, put on by professional actors, in the school hall, at no cost to families. Parents, whose child was not in a session on the day/time of the play, were also invited to bring their children.
  10. The school continued its Before and After School Hours Care program catering for students attending schools in Hastings and nearby areas. Families eligible for childcare benefits received significant fee reductions.
  11. A school psychologist (through Onpsych) continued to work with students, parents and staff within the school and in the home. There was no costs to families, other than those associated with obtaining a doctor’s referral.
  12. Therapy programs for children at any year level who appeared to be lacking in empathy or social skills, continued to be held at Sages Farm, involving children in animal care, horticulture and creative arts. Once again there was no cost to families.
  13. In 2009 all grades will hold afternoon tea for the parents of children in the grade. Children will put on an item, show parents their work, etc.

We are very excited by what has transpired for our students and families as part of our involvement in the project. In 2009 and beyond, St Mary’s as part of the project, looks forward to providing environments and experiences that better meet the needs of parents and support the physical, social, emotional, spiritual and cognitive development of students.
 

References

AEDI National Support Centre 2005, Community Profile Final Report.

AEDI National Support Centre 2005, Case Study: Morning Peninsula Shire.

Australian Bureau of Statistics 2006, ABS Census 2006.

Otero, George and West-Burnham, John 2008, Building Social Capital Creating Effective Communities (presentation), Centre for Relational Learning, New Mexico, US.

 

KLA

Subject Headings

Parent and teacher
Primary education
Socially disadvantaged
Transitions in schooling