Modern resources in an intensive setting make a remarkable difference to disadvantaged students

Maurie Mulheron

Brian* was a rather large year 7 boy who always seemed to be eating a meat pie with sauce each time he arrived at our classroom. It was possible to buy food on three occasions during a school day — before school, at recess and at lunchtime. For Brian, three occasions meant three pies, so the odds were pretty high that he would find himself outside our classroom scoffing down the last remains of the pie. If I ever complained about having to wait for him on the landing outside our room, he would blame the canteen’s pie-oven for being too hot. It was a logic that defeated me each time.

Left alone with his pie, Brian was an affable and docile boy, a bit of a loner except for his trusty mate, Ronnie. They were opposites. Where Brian was overweight, with furry facial hair and too big for his grey woollen pie-stained school jumper, Ronnie was small and neat. They reminded me of the two characters from Steinbeck’s novella, Of Mice and Men.

Brian had had an interrupted schooling. His father was an itinerant labourer from rural NSW and they had moved to the outer suburbs of Sydney looking for work. The family lived in a caravan park near the school.

Brian, despite his lethargic manner, had managed to get a casual job at a local fruit shop, working after school most days.

When I asked Brian what kind of work he did, he replied, “Nothin’ much.”

I persevered, “What’s your favourite job in the shop?”

He thought for a while, “Sortin’ potatoes into sacks.”

“That’s great! Why do you like packing potatoes, Brian?”

“Cos you get to do it sitting down.”

Later, Brian was to provide me with a moment of sheer delight that I have never forgotten all these years later.

It was the late 1970s and I was employed at a large high school in south-western Sydney to teach reading. I walked into an extraordinary program where two classrooms had been turned into one space, with small study rooms at each end. Each year 7 English class would be brought to this new resource room where all the students would be assessed and placed into an intense and staged program. Students used the latest technology — that may appear primitive by today’s standards — and accessed a range of resources including picture books, charts, sight-cards, tapes, worksheets, spelling lists, short stories and word puzzles.

Most activities appeared self-directed but that was more illusion than reality. With three teachers in the room, each child’s progress was mapped and assessed every few days. Because of the sheer variety of activities, most students were highly motivated...which brings me back to Brian and the moment of delight.

It was a hot, humid afternoon in late February. Brian’s class turned up at the door after lunch. Brian and his pie followed soon after. Once everyone was settled, I checked our student records and realised that Brian was due to be assessed.

As every student gathered their personal program cards and went to their next activity, I called Brian over and sat him down next to me in the study room.

I had chosen a popular short story about racing cars that we were going to tackle together. The sun had baked the room, the air was stifling and, even with the window open, there was no breeze. I looked across at Brian and saw him resting his head on his arm. His eyes were drooping. My instincts kicked in — don’t overstretch him, we’ll work things up slowly.

“Brian, we need to do your next reading assessment, mate. Sit up. Can you just read the first sentence out loud for me?”

Very slowly he turned his heavy eyes to the page. He then turned to me, with a shocked look, “What? All of it?”

I started to laugh. I couldn’t help it but the sarcasm genie took over, “No, Brian, just start reading the sentence and stop when you are too tired to go on.”

Actually Brian thought this was a good deal and, even though he struggled, he read the sentence out loud.

The program that Brian’s class was involved in, and under which I was employed, was funded by the Commonwealth Government and was called the Disadvantaged Schools Program (DSP). It was a national approach to overcoming the gap caused by poverty through targeted funding and had grown out of the Schools Commission established by the Whitlam Government.

I learned in the two years that I was part of the program the difference it made —a dramatic, remarkable difference — to almost every child involved. Three teachers working together with the one class with modern resources in an intensive setting. This is what increased funding bought.

Brian eventually progressed through the four stages of the program with his reading age increasing dramatically at each stage.

Fast forward to 2013, and we are poised to introduce another Commonwealth funding model, but this time not an ‘add-on’ program subject to the whim of policy makers but targeted recurrent funding. It is known by every teacher as Gonski.

Is it too obvious to say that all students experiencing disadvantage like Brian deserve to have a greater share of the funding pie?

*All names have been changed, except Gonski.