Benalla is a beautiful town that appears prosperous, but in fact has high levels of disadvantage.
Benalla has a number of problems, including a growing number of children starting school without the range of skills necessary to move forward with learning; reducing levels of literacy and numeracy; low levels of wellbeing among the student population; a disproportionately high level of school leaving prior to Year 12; and a concentration of Year 12 completers without tertiary qualifications in low-skilled occupations that are the least secure. Levels of educational attainment are linked to every other indicator of socio-economic disadvantage.
Tomorrow Today formed a community-wide advisory committee to research and understand the issues. Based on the committee's recommendations, Tomorrow Today shaped the Education Benalla Program, a whole-of-community 10 year intervention with four objectives:
- All children start school ready to learn
- Literacy and numeracy levels measurably improve
- Student levels of wellbeing improve
- Family and community raise aspirations for students to go on to tertiary education or training.
The result will be that by 2030, education and training completion rates for Benalla's 17 to 24 year olds will equal or exceed the Victorian average.
The approach is a community development model of action with cross-institutional support across public agencies, business and community groups involving over 120 partners and more than eighty volunteers.
The program engages families and children from birth, focusing on fostering parent/child attachment and enhancing parent knowledge and skills through peer-to-peer mentoring and connection to social and professional support. Nursery rhymes, stories, socialising, imaginative play, and structured activities all help establish pre-literacy and numeracy skills.
As children grow, they are connected with adults additional to their parents who can expand their life experience and build their aspirations to succeed at school and find rewarding and fulfilling careers. Young people are also assisted to connect to sports, hobbies and art groups. Volunteers act as reading buddies, mentors, coaches and tutors. Service providers and schools work collaboratively to tackle issues such as developmental vulnerability, work skills, family support and school absenteeism.
We believe that it will take at least 10 years of active resourcing to achieve sustainable change in our young people's educational achievements. Gratifyingly, at the six year mark, we are already beginning to see many signs of positive change. Parents are reporting improved knowledge and skills, and school absenteeism rates have declined.
The recently released Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) results show that we have arrested the worsening trajectory of childhood vulnerability with significant improvement in a number of domains. Students in our programs (e.g. Reading Buddies, Hands on Learning, small group tutoring and Connect9 mentoring) show increased levels of wellbeing and greater satisfaction with schooling.
There is wide-based community support. Pre-schools and schools welcome and embrace our involvement and seek our input and advice.
Our journey is not without trials and tribulations. There are personalities and agendas to be negotiated; false starts and occasional failures; sometimes the work is just plain hard. We rigorously and constantly check and recheck what we are doing to ensure each component is achieving what we set out to achieve and continues to contribute effectively to the whole.
In the end, we have found that the secret to ongoing success is to keep drawing our collective eyes, hearts and minds back to those we are working for, the children and young people of Benalla, our present and our future.
For further information visit the Tomorrow Today website.
Author: Pat Claridge, Executive Officer, Tomorrow Today Foundation
'The Foundation has been a long term major supporter of the Education Benalla program, awarding a total of $920,000 in grants to support of this program since 2009. The program has been an exemplar initiative, with outstanding local leadership, underpinned by strong community support and cross agency partnerships. The program has and will continue to be instrumental in changing the lives of many families in Benalla.'
Nicole Bortone, Education Program Manager, The Ian Potter Foundation