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A principal’s perspective

VASSP videoHands On Learning Australia (HOLA) was invited to present at the Victorian Association of Secondary School Principals (VASSP) annual conference in March 2013 to inform principals about the benefits of using the Hands On Learning (HOL) method in schools.

HOLA asked two principals and a journalist who have practical knowledge of HOL to share their perspectives.

Intro: We have here Denise Ryan who works with RMIT and also is a journalist with the Age, you may have read some of her articles, and she is very interested in a program that aims to keep vulnerable students at school, called Hands On Learning (HOL), and she’s going tell us a bit about it and then she is going to briefly interview Angela Pollard who you know is principal of Mt Eliza Secondary College, so please welcome Denise and Angela to the stage.

Denise Ryan: Hello there. Some of you have met me on my journey around the State school system writing stories over the last six years. I’ve been a journalist with the Age for twenty years, eight of those writing about education. For the last six years I’ve been putting out, with a colleague, the Education and Higher Education pages and website. I recently left the Age, only a few weeks ago, and am now working as a lecturer at RMIT university, continuing my work at Melbourne University training African community leaders in dealing with the media, trying particularly to help Sudanese youth to better portray those young people, and as well, in the spirit of life long learning, I am undertaking a PhD at Monash University.
I was a state high school teacher in my twenties, so life has turned full circle and I am back in education. Looking back on the six years where I had the privilege of getting into virtually every Independent school and seeing all the bells and whistles, and getting into your school hopefully, and seeing a lot of really dynamic teaching happening, I kept coming across a program that made me laugh in the end, because Russell Kerr kept emailing me, like every Year 9 teacher in the state, saying they had a great program. Now my email inbox looks like your email inbox, but probably multiplied by five, because people want you to come down and have a look. Eventually I did go and have a look and I have to say this program where students, the most at risk students, and probably the most difficult students or withdrawn students can spend a day or so a week working with a person with pastoral care abilities and a tradesman doing projects within the school or community, hands on tangible projects, was often the only reason these children cited to me why they were coming to school. Now we write a story like that and we’re done and dusted but I got a big feedback to that story. And then I was busy working on the Higher Education pages and interviewing people in TAFE and the TAFE’s are always wheeling out these success stories to me, and I was interviewing these young men and women and they would say, oh well I was really shocking at school, I was big trouble, but because I did this program I kind of turned up for that one day a week and made do the other four days, and it got me to TAFE and now I might get a job.
And then of course I’m writing up research from places like Melbourne University and there are people like Professor Stephen Lamb who has research on school retention and there again is HOL, so I started teasing Russell who I’d got to know and I’d say you’ve got no marketing budget how are you pulling this off? And it was simple really, it was outcomes. So what I would say to you is to have a look at this program.
But really the best person to talk about it is someone who has worked with it, so I’d like to call up Angela Pollard. Angela is the principal of Mt Eliza Secondary College, but she was previously the principal of McClelland College in Frankston and that program has been running there since 2010, so she is a person who really understands how this program works.
So like you, I know of many alternative education programs, a lot of them are not in school based, so what distinguishes in your view HOL from those 41 others that get partial funding.

Angela Pollard: I really have to start by responding to my environment and what Richard Teese said this morning, and I hope that the fact that we’ve only got five minutes for this conversation doesn’t represent a weak view of the value of government education, and I hope you like me are feeling pretty angry about the impact of the private system but also at our collegiate government schools who feel compelled to become pseudo-private school on the work we are trying to do for this system.
HOL is an example of a strategy that addresses that social issue, social equity horizontal aspect of the graph Richard Teese talked about.
What sets HOL apart is three things. First of all, it is completely contextualized in the school setting. At no time do the students ever consider that they do not belong to the school. They are not sent out to do a program where they are fixed and then brought back into the school with the hope that something is going to change. Everything that happens in the program is part of the school and it’s part of the school culture.
The second difference is a consequence of that, and that is that it relates straight back into the classroom, so while the focus of the HOL program one day a week for the students is very much in the social domain, addressing social equity, again as Richard Teese spoke about with us this morning, with a focus on personal and interpersonal development, the reason for doing that is to assist students to be more effective in the classroom – so there is no disconnect whatsoever between the program and our focus in schools as principals on improving student outcomes.
The third thing that I think that is outstanding about the program is that inevitably the students who are involved in HOL are already connected to a huge range of outside support agencies, not just them but their family, so they’re probably already working with the Department of Human Services or Child First or a psychologist or psychiatrist or whatever it might be, all of those people without the program are working in isolation. Once HOL kicks in for those students, those people have a common focus point and it’s a real example of how we can work collaboratively with a range of services outside of the school.
The other most important person who’s on the outside without the HOL program is the family, and again, the parents of these children typically are the people who will not come near the school, they’ve probably had a negative experience themselves. HOL enables them to connect with the school because the program is simply about their own child, and they do engage with the school in a way that is quite mind blowing. At McClelland College the turn up rate for family events, pizza nights and whatever, with the HOL students was about five times the turn up rate for any other student in the school. So it is quite a unique program.

Denise Ryan: How do you actually know that it works, can you give us examples of individual students?

Angela Pollard: I can talk about the data, I can talk about improved retention, improved attendance, improved student attitudes to school survey data, I can talk about individual students, I can tell you about somebody like Chris who started school in Year 7, and had no social skills, and spent most of his life underneath the table which he would then pick up and throw at anybody who came near him. After two years in HOL he is now a mentor for other students in the program, he talks the talk about managing impulsivity, his mother works at the school constantly going on camps and excursions, she’s become a pseudo-mum for some of the other students in the program. Or I can talk about someone like Elisa who was not a behaviour problem, but she is one of what I would call the invisible children. In class, at school every day, miserably unhappy, no social contacts, just invisible. After the program, a couple of years for her, she emerged with a passion for the environment and ended up in Year 12 as the environmental captain. So they’re two specific examples, but if I’m honest, and you’re sitting there as a principal, it’s easy to trot out individual examples, the thing that matters is the impact the program has on the entire school. It stamps the school as a caring community that really puts into action the talk about student wellbeing and it undoubtedly has a positive impact on every single child in the school because these students who are not engaging in the classroom get in the way of teacher work, and by giving them a strategy to reengage you’re not just benefiting them, you’re benefiting everybody in the school.

Denise Ryan: Now there are 24 schools that are actually running this program, but when I would speak with other State secondary schools about the program they would often say to me, I’d love to run it, but school council which is stacked with the parents of all the achieving kids wants to put on a VCE teacher in French and that’s all we’ve got money for, they don’t really want to spend the money on a tradesman and perhaps some pastoral care for those kids that maybe it might suit us better if they left anyway. People have said that to me, obviously being frank about the difficult decisions they are making about how they spend their funding, so how did you manage to achieve, or did you just back the program because you felt it was a most important priority?

Angela Pollard: It was certainly an important priority, and there’s probably not a principal sitting here who wouldn’t say their school goals were around student wellbeing, student achievement, retention, and good pathways, that’s the core of our work. And I would also say, and I’ve said this to the people from HOLA, I don’t see myself as someone who is particularly welfare driven, that’s not my focus, my focus has always been on achievement, curriculum, student learning, but I could see really clearly that one could not happen without the other and the reality that’s been absolutely laid bare from Richard Teese this morning, is that what we’re dealing with in our schools is a complex mix of students and not the mix that would want, so we can’t put our head in he sand and ignore the reality. If we want to support our high achieving students to achieve, the first thing we all know we have to do is to create an orderly environment. This is a strategy that assists in the creation of an orderly environment – that’s step number one. On a simple level, if you want 40 students involved in HOL it will cost you about $100,000, that is not a huge amount of money in a budget, I know, I’ve come from a school that just came out of deficit when we took on HOL. It’s a matter of prioritizing, if it matters to you you’ll find a way. There are lots of things that happen in schools that are not necessarily having a positive impact on outcomes, if you brutally scrutinize what you are doing, you will find a way to find the money, but the money is not just for the benefit of the kids in the program, it absolutely has an impact right across the whole school. It badges your schools as a school that actions the talk about personalizing learning and it totally sets up an environment in the classroom where learning is valued, as is high achievement. I can talk to you about the journey at McClelland College over five years where the school started and where it – well it hasn’t ended, but when I’ve left it – where we got to, and I absolutely attribute HOL as one of the strategies resulted in looking after our students, every single one of them, and not being happy to have them walk out the door, but also improving outcomes at the top end.

Denise Ryan: Thank you very much Angela, we’re conscious of the time. Craig Felstead, the College Director of Sale College, some of the rural schools have really benefited from this program, he had things that he wanted to say, I wont get to those today, but if you go to the HOL website you will be able to read Craig’s experience of the program, so you’ve got a metropolitan and a rural response from people who have really tried to use the program and are now obviously assessing the outcomes. Thank you very much.


Craig Felstead, College Director, Sale College was unable to attend the conference but provided written responses to Denise’s questions:

What is special about Hands On Learning (HOL)? There are a lot of programs that target disengaged students, what are 3 things that make HOL different?
Hands On Learning offers an onsite program for disengaged students that provides real world activities that often reflect the importance of what they are learning in class.
Students complete many projects around the school which other students see and value. It builds a sense of pride in the school amongst students.
HOL has a structured approach that is supported by the HOLA organisation and teachers from around the state meet throughout the year to share their experiences.
Our staff do not feel “alone”.

What has convinced you HOL works/is valuable for your school?
The change it has made to so many students over the last five years reflects the success of the program. One example is a very disengaged student who was placed in the program half way through Year 7 and went on to become the Campus Captain in Year 9.
Our staff really value the program. Another example from one of our Year 9 English teachers describes the significant change in one of his female students after two terms of HOL as almost black and white. “Before Hands On she was loud, aggressive and uncooperative. Very happy to disrupt others, didn’t do homework and her books were very untidy. The change was immense and it was all about happiness. Her head had been so busy coping with life at 15, and all the angst and anger made it impossible to learn. By the end of the year she was turning up on time ready to learn and took out the most improved student award.”

What does it cost? What resources do you need? What support is there to train the staff involved?
The main cost, of course, is the staffing. Originally we had two teachers at 0.8 FTE running the program for 36 students (12 students per day for 3 days). We then reduced this to one teacher and volunteers who were retired builders. Our Chaplain also works one day a week in the program. Others schools have a teacher and an artisan. The program can run with a $5,000 budget each year and we have found local businesses to be very supportive and have donated tools etc. Bakers Delight provide bread for breakfast etc. each day.
HOLA are very supportive of staff and schools with ongoing professional development and training opportunities.
The students constructed our current building using two containers and recycled materials.
Much of their work is very cost effective for the school and other local organisations. One example is the outdoor picnic tables they have made for the school for $120 each – quotes to purchase these were coming in at around $1,000.
They have also built an extensive herb and vegetable garden complete with a watering system, a huge mosaic seat from recycled car tyres that has become a popular Year 9 area, and installed a number of drinking fountains around the school. The community work has ranged from landscaping at a new aged care facility and planting 1000 tress as part of a regeneration of local sand dune project, to making play equipment for a local child care centre that included a pretend bridge and dress up rack.

One thought on “A principal’s perspective

  1. Eileen Still

    What a fantastic initiative to be introduced into secondary schools. Every child deserves the opportunity to have a Education which is the key to a career pathway of their choice and according to research this program has provided the disengaged students to re engage and connect with the community, and given the student a healthy self esteem and confidence which has been a steeping stone to building effective relationships with parents,teachers and peers.. Given the success of this program (HOL) with the support of the community and teachers and principals alike it would be fantastic if more funding was to become available to extend the program into other schools including Primary schools this initaitive would help identify the learning/social needs of younger students who have a poor attendance record at school .

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