From struggle street to ‘school of choice’

by Brett Henebery09 Jun 2017

Having opened in 2008, South Halls Head Primary School, located in WA, is a relatively new school, but it has an inspiring story to tell.

The school’s leadership team became concerned with its NAPLAN results, as 30% of students were falling below the national minimum standard in reading and numeracy.

To boost student outcomes, the school determined it needed a consistent pedagogical approach, greater support around basic skills and knowledge and to meet its own benchmarks for minimum student performance.

The school’s principal, Jan Workman, told The Educator that in 2009, the school’s Year 3 numeracy was behind national average by 33 points, with no students performing above band 6.

“Two years later, 31% of our students were at or below the benchmark in Year 3 numeracy, and by that stage, the school average was 18 points behind the national average.”

However, this started to change significantly when Workman and her leadership team identified that explicit teaching offered the best approach to meet the needs of the school population.

“As for student numeracy this year, none of our students are below the benchmark, the school average is above the national average and we have eight students above band 6,” she said.

The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL), which recently teamed up with Evidence for Learning to create new feedback resources for schools, have since featured Workman’s school in a case study about the effectiveness of such practices on teaching and learning outcomes.

Workman said that through applying explicit teaching throughout the school, students have been able to develop a better grasp of what they are being taught, which has improved both outcomes and engagement during lessons.

“Our teachers used to stand at the front of the classroom and they would start the lesson by asking questions, and what would come back to them would be wrong answers,” she said.

“So the students were getting very confused as to what the right answers were. By the time that the teachers got to the right answer, the students had switched off.”

Workman said the explicit teaching process provides a procedure to go through which helps teachers avoid this situation.

“The first part of this procedure is that the teacher tells students the correct answer, and then the question follows this to ensure that students understand why that answer is correct,” she explained.

“This avoids the initial mass confusion, particularly among students who perform below the benchmark. It’s a very difficult thing to achieve, because this is what teachers have done for years.”

Workman said that teachers used to sit and work with one child or sit at their desk at mark students’ papers, they now move around the room and mark over-the-shoulder as the students are working.

“This means there is no more collecting student papers at the end. It also means much less work for the teacher, and that they know exactly where every student is at with their work,” she said.

Workman pointed out that the school’s twice-a-year data collection cycle allows teachers to more effectively target the areas in which students are falling behind, enabling an early-intervention process.

“This means we know what every student is doing at any point in time, if they’re falling behind and what progress they should have made,” she said.

Workman said that looking at how far the school has come, she is most proud of her staff, who she said have shown persistent care and faith in their students.

“I’m very proud of my staff. They’ve taken on challenges at the school really well and have been personally invested in making big improvements to student outcomes,” she said.

“I believe that we have become the school of choice in our area. Our Education Department’s motto is ‘high achievement, high care’. I think this is what parents are looking for, and that’s what they’re getting.”