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  What Works - The Work Program

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Swan Hill Primary School, Victoria

Focus on the things schools are responsible for

Background | Getting started with What Works | Parent and carer surveys | Cultural studies | Other programs


Swan Hill is a city of over 15,000 people situated on the Murray River more than 300 kilometres from Melbourne. It is an agricultural and horticultural centre but tourism is becoming increasingly important.

Swan Hill Primary School has about 530 students, and about 55 of those are Aboriginal. Most of their families are settled in the area.

Getting started with What Works

Bernie Conlon at bus duty

Bernie Conlan at bus duty

Bernie Conlan is Principal of Swan Hill Primary School. Here he discusses the early experience with What Works.

Actually, I was very pleased with the shape of the What Works program, particularly because we had dedicated time to sit down and plan. That made the difference. We had time to really consider where we’re at and come up with a detailed plan which we are now implementing. Our Koorie kids are a priority.

The planning team included me, our Koorie Educator, a Prep–2 teacher, a Year 3–4 teacher and a Year 5–6 teacher. The reason we did it that way was to allow for good communication back to our levels at school because each fortnight we break up into those teams to plan and organise.

It was interesting that when we first got together I think we probably did what a lot of groups did, and started talking about those things that we have no power over. At one point I just stopped everyone, because it was getting frustrating, and said, ‘look, let’s really focus on the things we know we can affect?’ We needed to concentrate on the things that schools are responsible for and it took a bit of time to establish that.

And that’s when somebody said that we suspect that our Koorie parents are happy with what we’re doing but we don’t really know that, and they’re not very involved in the school. So we decided to build our strategy around the notion that better relationships with Koorie parents, and more knowledge about what they want, would lead to better outcomes for the kids. From that point onwards our planning came together.

Parent and carer surveys


The first strategy was to establish whether our perceptions were right. We had some help from Cliff Downey from Dare to Lead in working out a survey of parents and carers, and he’s also helped with interviews. Then our Koorie teacher and Koorie Educator visited the Koorie families to complete the survey and everyone seemed to be happy with the experience.

The information has now been collated and it has shown that we were right in thinking that parents were generally happy with what the school is doing. They thought the school included their kids and made them feel welcome. But they have two suggestions for improvement.

The first is that we should work together to find a way that they can be more involved in the school. They realise they can and perhaps should be involved but they don’t think we’ve found the right way yet. And the other thing was that we don’t do Koorie cultural studies very well. In fact it’s quite ad hoc. So we have those two things to work on.

Community involvement


For parent and community involvement, we’ve developed a model and applied for PSPI [Parent School Partnerships Initiative] funding from DEST to support it.

The key element is to try to get funding to employ four of our Koorie parents as trainee teacher-aides. They will be paid to come to the school and be involved in classrooms, and at the same time we will provide training. Our literacy coordinator will run the training and there will be lots of classroom experience.

We hope that those parents will become much more confident about being at the school and confident about helping their kids. And they will go away with a real appreciation about what is going on at school and be able to talk about it in the community. They will also be able to influence what’s going on.

It will be an application process, but we will provide a lot of encouragement for people to apply. We really want this to happen. If parents are involved in the school it sends a very important message to the kids that school is important. It’s important enough for mum and dad to be up here and involved.

Cultural Studies

We want to have Koorie cultural studies for all kids, so they all understand a little bit more about Koorie culture. I’m really happy that we’ve recognised the need to do this better. We want our Koorie kids to be proud.

The KEDO [Koorie Education Development Officer] in the Region has got all the Koorie Educators together and they’re going to meet once a month to develop units of work. They’ll have help from other educators as well. It’s good timing for us because it fits in with what we’ve found out from parents but also because we are now in the process of updating our whole curriculum.

We’re thinking at the moment that a dedicated unit of work at Grades 1, 3 and 5 would be appropriate. And planning like this means that there won’t be duplication.

Other programs

The What Works initiative has given extra impetus to a number of other programs at Swan Hill Primary School. Bernie talks about some of these.

Koorie parents always tell us that they want their kids to succeed at school, but sometimes kids don’t have a real sense of purpose. They don’t necessarily see where their school work might be leading them. So we’ve taken a few steps about that.

Grades 5 and 6 already do a whole unit of work about careers, but now we’re planning a week twice a year, when the whole school theme is careers.

Also, we recognised a couple of years ago that we needed to lift the self-esteem of our Koorie kids and highlight their achievements to parents as well. And that’s where the idea for a Koorie newsletter came from. We asked the kids to give it a name and they decided to call it ‘Deadly Achievers’. It comes out every month on special paper and we know that parents look forward to seeing their kids’ photos in there.

So now we’re going to have a ‘careers’ focus in part of ‘Deadly Achievers’. Each issue is going to include a feature about a child, what that child wants to do one day, why they would like to do that and what they are going to have to do to achieve their career goal.

This year we’ve changed from parent–teacher meetings to student-led conferences. We were disappointed with the numbers of parents coming to meetings previously (and not just Koorie parents). It involves a bit of a performance by the kids because they have to prepare what will happen and it means they are very keen to get their parents to come. They want to show their parents what they have done. And so far it has worked well, and almost all Koorie families came.

The kids have a portfolio which they build up in their class during the term. Then the teachers prepare them to present that portfolio in a way that tells their parents what their goals are and what they have achieved. There are tabs on certain pages which the kids particularly want to show their parents as they go along. Then when they’re finished they ask the parents if there are any questions, then the teacher has their say, and then it’s really general discussion. It’s really quite formal in the way it’s conducted but of course teachers need to support the younger kids more.

So the child is central, but we hope that the parent finds it more comfortable and gets to understand more about what’s happening at school as well. In that way, it fits with our other initiative.


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