Doors open and parents swing behind Gonski

Dinoo Kelleghan

Greg Blundell letterboxes Gonski school leaflets

Greg Blundell teaches at Homebush PS, where 98 per cent of the children come from non-English-speaking backgrounds. Homebush is in Reid, one of 10 seats targeted in the Gonski Door-knock on March 20.

The federal MP for Reid, Craig Laundy, who in 2013 brought the seat over to the Liberals for the first time since the 1920s, is the Assistant Minister for Multicultural Affairs and in his first speech to parliament noted he had one of the country’s most ethnically diverse seats. “Whilst many talk about multiculturalism, in Reid we live it,” he said.

But there are complex learning needs in a multicultural society and schools are waiting for certainty that Mr Laundy’s government will commit to continuing Gonski funding past 2017.

Since Gonski needs-based money started flowing into Reid, schools in Homebush, Burwood, Auburn and surrounding suburbs found the means to help children whose parents speak little or no English escape communication black holes.

Schools are employing speech pathologists, Learning Support Officers, and community liaison officers to bring isolated parents into engagement with teachers. After-school homework centres have been set up and immense resources poured into English classes.

This is fertile ground for seeding Federation’s message that there’s a great deal to lose if Gonski funding ceased coming from the Commonwealth, and parents are starting to understand this, says local Gonski coordinator Jessie Wotton.

“People started connecting when we gave them the Gonski schools leaflet for the area,” Jessie said. “They could actually see that the funding was to do with their area and they became thoughtful when we asked, ‘If the funding were cut, how would you choose which schools would lose which resources?’. You watch people — their whole attitude shifts.”

Jessie is encountering parents who want to help. “I give them achievable action,” she says. “I say, ‘Share stories, letterbox Gonski leaflets, take the leaflets to your business office, go on Facebook’. Parents are joining teachers from four schools in the area to visit Mr Laundy’s office on successive occasions.

People see Gonski funding as a no-brainer, said Jill Biddington, a non-teacher volunteer who door-knocked around Reid on March 20. “There are lots of people from the Indian subcontinent in this area,” she said, “and I heard over and over again from them that ‘an important role of the state is to provide good education’. They can’t understand why we’re having to campaign about it.

Gonski funding is also shifting culture in schools, Jessie finds. “Teachers are now more involved in the budget: the campaign is giving teachers the confidence to do this, and it’s also giving principals a different sense of accountability for the spending. They are working collaboratively and it’s building a sense of community in schools.”

Auburn North PS teacher Chris Barker was out in Reid. “I’ve never door-knocked before but I totally believe in what you’re doing,” he told Jessie. “He was great,” Jessie said. “He knew exactly how to talk to his school’s Gonski story. He was passionate and articulate.”

Craig Laundy has accepted Greg Blundell’s invitation to his school to see the speech pathologist at work. It could be important. It was a watershed moment for the NSW Education Minister, Adrian Piccoli, when a mother in Quakers Hill told him how her little son spoke his first unprompted sentences as a result of Gonski-funded support for special needs students. Mr Piccoli shared this Gonski story in parliament.

At Homebush Public there’s a first-generation little Australian in kindergarten whose life has been transformed by Gonski funding. “He had no English,” said Greg. “His speech was garbled. He was one of those kids who’d come up and tug at you and point to things. After a year with the Gonski-funded speech pathologist the boy is starting to speak. He can communicate. He’s much more confident, happier. His mother came up and thanked me because his progress is so marked.”

That’s a story Craig Laundy and Malcolm Turnbull ought to hear.