Source – Learning together: The power of cluster-based school improvement, by Maggie Farrar, 2015 (Centre for Strategic Education – Seminar Series 249).
A recent article (Topsfield, 2014) in the Australian daily newspaper, The Age, featured the Nathalia Learning Community Alliance and opened with the words ‘imagine if there was no ideological warfare between public and private schools’. It went on to describe the work of the alliance in Nathalia, a small rural town in northern Victoria, comprising four schools from the Catholic and State sectors and a community population of approximately 3,500 people.
The partnership means that the two secondary schools are able to offer more than 50 Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) subjects. According to the school principals ‘it keeps kids in the town’ – kids who might otherwise have to go elsewhere for their education.
The work of the alliance is underpinned by the moral belief that ‘all the kids in a community deserve the best possible education, regardless of which school they attend’. Over the past four years, the Nathalia Learning Community has strengthened its focus on collaborative practice, with education opportunities and outcomes beginning to improve. For example, the VCE Mean Study Score has increased steadily over this time and their Year 12 students are now above the state average.
Internal feedback from one principal states, ‘We have focused on linking the best teachers to students across the two secondary colleges, which has facilitated this improvement. It is great to see that our classes have a mixture of uniforms within them, and the students are engaged in their learning regardless of their home school.’
Through the Learning Community, senior students are also able to study five vocational education courses provided through the partnership. Without the partnership they would need to travel to a regional centre, half an hour away, to access such programs.
The approach has been so successful that they are using a similar model to address the challenges within the middle years of schooling, especially in relation to student motivation and engagement, specifically the need to increase the literacy skills and knowledge of students within the Year 5 to Year 8 levels.
Staff with responsibility for literacy within the primary schools have been working together across the two schools and can already see the benefit. They are also aware of the dangers of isolation for teachers living in small town, knowing that if teachers feel better connected they are more likely to stay in the community – something the local community highly values.
Cluster-based improvement is not warm and fuzzy; done well, it is sharp-edged characterised by professional toughness and by an unwillingness to accept anything less than excellence for all children.
This commitment to collaboration has not been without difficulty. Initially there was resistance, particularly from parents. Those parents who had not chosen a secular school for their children were uncomfortable about them being in a Catholic environment. Others who were paying for a Catholic school education were unhappy that the state school pupils were getting similar at no cost. As the positive impact on the students is now obvious this has become less of an issue. Similarly, the heads of the Catholic schools and the government schools know this issue needs careful handling but are committed to saying they will do ‘whatever it takes’ to give their children, collectively, the best possible education they can – and that means working together.
A key approach within the Nathalia Learning Community is building their teachers’ capacity to ensure that quality teaching and learning occurs within all their classes. While this is an ongoing approach, all staff have been:
- Involved in high-quality professional development initiatives
- Supported to participate in professional study tours to see great education models elsewhere, and
- Involved in professional learning discussion groups across the schools, focusing on key areas of improvement.
Another important contribution to their professional learning is the facilitation of a range of ‘learning walks’ that involve small teams of staff working through classes where good teaching and learning is taking place, then reflecting on what they observed and the implications for their own practice.