Our Place at Doveton College

The school where education is just the start of the experience

It’s several weeks after the schools have gone back but there’s still a big sign out the front of Doveton College that reads: “Enrolments being accepted for 2020.’’ The sign will be there all year, because newcomers are always welcome.

Learning at Doveton College

Walk into the school and you find yourself in a reception area that feels like a combination of a council office and a doctor’s surgery. In truth, Doveton College reception is a gateway to a range of diverse programs and resources. Pre-school children can undertake literacy programs here, be seen by a doctor or a paediatrician, join the kindergarten class, or continue their education journey until Year Nine. There are no other schools quite like Doveton and that’s because it has the Our Place program embedded into the way it does education. Our Place is the initiative of the Colman Foundation that started working with Doveton in 2012. The first step was Pam and Julius Colman’s decision to find a new way to deliver education and since then the Foundation has invested more than $5 million in the Doveton College community.

Critical to Julius Colman’s conception of the education program was that it had to be place-based. Doveton College was established in 2012 and although the suburb in Melbourne’s south-east has changed in the past eight years, there is no doubt that it is an area that poses challenges for educators. Only 8.7 per cent of Doveton residents attended a university or tertiary institution – half the Victorian percentage – according to the 2016 ABS Census. On every educational scale above year 12, Doveton was below the state’s average, whether it was Certificate Level III, advanced diploma or bachelor’s degree.

In social terms, Doveton has more separated, divorced or widowed residents than the Victorian average. There is also a big overseas-born population, with strong Afghan, Indian, Serbian and Sri Lankan representation. Employment is below the state average and many are working in the financially precarious aged care, supermarkets, cleaning and hospitality sectors. One in four families has only one parent.

It is a complex and dynamic social situation. As Doveton College principal Debra Gibson explains it, Doveton is an area where much of the population is “transient’’, arriving in the suburb from somewhere else, and often, moving on.

But what makes Doveton and its college such a powerful story is that its social circumstances are not unique: there are many other communities across Victoria facing similar issues and requiring a different approach to education. And the evidence shows that the Our Place program at Doveton has been instrumental in changing some of those indicators for the better.

Doveton College was one of only three Victorian schools that reported improved education outcomes for children the longer they attend, according to the 2018 MySchool analysis. The college is also now in the top 25 government schools for year 7-9 NAPLAN growth. There has been a 30% reduction in days absent across all year levels. In a broader sense, the school’s holistic and welcoming approach has helped the school to become a community hub where not only children can learn - programs for adults involve 200 parents and community members in engagement, education and volunteering on a yearly average.

Children who attended the school’s Early Learning Centre achieved a markedly higher performance on Prep entry testing in reading than those who did not go through the Centre, according to data analysed between 2013 and 2018. At the other end of the school-age scale, 90 per cent of students in year 7-9 were feeling stimulated and motivated about their leaning, putting them in the top quarter of the state’s students.

Doveton College

But it’s when the focus pulls back to look at families that the broader impact of Our Place becomes more visible. More than 100 parents and community volunteers are active at the school each week. And in recent years, the data shows a notable increase in parents reading to their children

With that kind of engagement and impact, it’s perhaps not surprising that in 2017 the Victorian government signed an agreement with the Colman Foundation to roll out Our Place across 10 school sites, including Morwell Central Primary School in the LaTrobe Valley, Seymour College, Carlton Primary School, Robinvale P-12 and Bridgewood Primary School. The Foundation has committed $30 million to make that happen over the next decade but if you need to see how a prototype of the program really works, you need to head to Doveton.

Debra Gibson is a trained engineer who changed careers to become a teacher. As principal at Doveton, she brings a compassionate pragmatism to the task. She puts the dilemma – and the solution – simply. “There were lots of services available to people to support people in this area, but they weren’t accessing them,’’ she says. “So, we brought the services here and wrapped them around our outstanding educational programs.’’

That means there is a speech therapist, a psychologist, allied health support (including a doctor), in addition to the educational opportunities. One of the important by-products of having a centralised services area was that it meant families only needed to tell their stories once, not every time they accessed a new service. On the education front, it meant finding the best people who wanted to be part of this new vision, wherein the highest quality teaching and learning was an absolute necessity. There was some staff movement in the early days, but retention has stabilised in the past few years. “It’s not for every teacher,’’ Deb says. “It’s hard work, emotional work but it’s very rewarding.’’

One of the key elements of the education program is offering extra-curricular activities that enable children to try everything from rock climbing to table tennis. It’s offered after hours and is run by a mixture of teachers and volunteers. But it needs money to support it and without the Colman Foundation, the program wouldn’t happen.

The Colman influence is central to Doveton –Julius plus four other people attached to the Foundation make up half the School Council. The only Department of Education representative is the principal. But it all works and now the next part of the equation is about to evolve with a closer relationship with nearby Hallam Senior Secondary College. The strong strategic relationship between the two settings is centred on ensuring that all Doveton College students have a pathway into and out of Hallam. The transition begins through shared programs and learning experiences in primary school.

There is also another more radical aspect to the Our Place initiative. It involves a significant shift in the thinking behind place-based solutions to community disadvantage. Previously, the Coleman Foundation’s agreement was with the Victorian Department of Education. Recently, after some months of quiet and deep discussion and reflection, the arrangement was taken up by the Department of Premier and Cabinet. The change reflects the focus of Our Place itself – a centralised oversight with a holistic focus that will enable all the relevant parties to come together. The move is a strong affirmation that our children’s education is just one element of a community’s capacity to adapt and thrive.

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