Melton West Primary School (MWPS) is a collaborative learning community to the west of Melbourne, Victoria. The school has experienced a growth in enrolment over the last several years with a current student population of 660. Over 20% of students at Melton West come from language backgrounds other than English, and a significant proportion have experienced trauma that impacts their learning.
Over the past several years, the school has experienced a large turnover of staff. Some reported feeling overwhelmed by the experience of teaching students with severe behaviours, while also setting and maintaining high expectations for improving student learning outcomes and delivering a high-quality curriculum.
At May 2017 the staffing situation was as follows:
- 49% of teaching staff were new to the school
- 85% of classroom teachers were either new to the school in 2016 or 2017
- Eight classroom teachers had left the school after only one year
- The longest serving teaching staff member had been at the school for nine years
- In 2014 there were 12.2 EFT Education Support Staff compared to 20.5 EFT in 2017 – a 41% increase over the 2014–2017 School Strategic Plan, demonstrating the growth in support requirements for students in this time.
- Only 29% of total staff were at the school at the start of the 2014–2017 Strategic Plan. During the same period the school experienced an increase in enrolment of approximately 100 students.
Staffing instability occurred despite continuing efforts to create a collaborative culture, through Professional Learning Communities (PLC) and extensive support provided through a whole-school coaching model. While school leaders were confident with the work, student learning outcomes were still not improving at the expected rate. Staff turnover was put forward as the primary cause.
What happened during the project?
MWPS started their project by seeking to understand the issues around retention by asking two questions: Why do staff leave? How can we keep them?
The school leadership team looked at staff survey data and led conversations with staff about the challenges they faced working at the school. They found that staff did not feel confident to meet the needs of their students.
This led to a renewed strategic focus on building collective efficacy across the school and investing heavily in teacher professional development to better equip teachers to understand and support students with challenging behaviours to achieve results on par with their peers.
To build collective efficacy in the school, MWPS staff first explored what it looks and feels like through conversations and professional reading. They then worked on strengthening existing collaborative processes in PLCs with new protocols that focused on collective learning and inquiry and encouraging teachers to collaborate in this way more often than previously.
In 2018, while working with a partner school as part of a School Improvement Partnership supported by the Victorian Department of Education, staff at MWPS made an explicit connection between the ability of their collective efficacy practices to increasing teachers’ level of skill and understanding in reading practices. As such, staff committed to a precision focus on improving reading outcomes for students within their PLC structure.
The renewed PLC structure was complemented with significant investment in teacher professional learning around the use of data, impactful pedagogy in literacy, and trauma-informed practice, all of which are mobilised into practice collaboratively through the schools’ PLC teams.
The team specifically identified trauma-informed practice as a critical need in the school, both to cater for trauma-affected children and help inexperienced staff understand the impact trauma has on learning. All teachers at MWPS are trained in the Berry Street Education Model for trauma-informed practice, meaning these practices are used consistently in all classrooms.
What changed for the students?
The two most immediate impacts of MWPS’ focus on collective efficacy over the last few years are: significant improvement in staff retention (staff turnover has reduced from 42% in 2016 to 8% in 2019), and increased capacity of staff to use data and collaborative inquiry to improve practice, particularly in literacy, and support children who have experienced trauma.
These two outcomes are mutually reinforcing; more highly-skilled and collaborative teachers have built morale across the school and improved retention, which in turn allows the school to invest more deeply in developing the practice of teachers. Improvements in staff morale and collective efficacy can be seen across data sets including staff climate surveys and interviews.
Ultimately, the biggest impact at MWPS has been on students. The consistent presence of teachers, as well as a focus on student wellbeing and high-quality teaching strategies, has created a learning environment which supports engagement and a significant growth in student outcomes.
“Our hypothesis was correct – if staff stayed, we can make a difference to students” – Michelle Costa, Principal
Between 2016 and 2018, the school reported a 20% decrease in number of negative incidences recorded, including 13% decrease in physical violence, and an 80% decrease in the number of students who leave their classrooms without permission on a regular basis.
NAPLAN data shows also significant improvements, with scores for Year 3 and Year 5 reading data showing an upward trend towards the state mean over 5 years. The 2019 NAPLAN Relative High Growth for equity-funded students in reading shows MWPS above state average at 24% compared to 21% for the state.
Where to next?
MWPS will continue to deepen the collaborative inquiry practices across the staff through introducing increased peer observations, formative assessment and goal setting. They will maintain their focus on reading and expand this into other areas of literacy such as writing and comprehension.
MWPS is also committed to delving deeper into student voice and agency to bring students deeper into the learning journey that teachers are on. The school is seeking to understand what student voice looks like at the classroom level in every interaction, aiming to integrate it into curriculum planning, implementation and feedback, including student to teacher. Staff feel that developing authentic student voice would drive engagement of teachers and students, and ultimately better student outcomes. Feedback is happening in pockets across the school and the goal is to ensure it’s occurring across all year levels.
Student focus groups and other projects are overseen by the Junior School Council. The Learning Specialist embraces student voice in his classroom routinely. Technology is another key tool to enable student agency. The school aims to shift the use of technology as a reward to using it as a learning tool. This was confirmed through the work the students engaged in as part of the Ignite project, through the Victorian Student Representative Council (VicSRC).
To improve learning and teaching practices across the school, MWPS learned that the following were important:
- Clear communication – Communicating the mission, vision and values of the school routinely to all stakeholders: students, parents and staff.
- Capacity building – Building the capacity of teachers across the school through the PLC framework, including ongoing coaching, mentoring and peer observations.
- Distributive leadership – Embedding distributive leadership to drive the work of the school, with a strong connection to the Principal Class Team.
- Change advocates – Managing change and new initiatives through starting small, identifying key leaders and drivers and working with them to gain staff buy-in.
In order to build collective efficacy MWPS needed to assist their teachers to understand what efficacy was. To build teacher efficacy, they were explicit about genuinely wanting a stable staff and this, in turn, ensured staff were consulted more regularly in school-wide decisions, giving them greater agency. An example of this was deciding that reading should be the specific focus for the next Strategic Plan.
The importance of collaboration
Q&A with the School Principal
Q: What has made SVA a productive partnership for your school?
Key factors that have made SVA a productive partnership include opportunities to network with other educators and learn from them, as well as access to high quality educators at the Thought Leadership Gatherings (TLGs) supporting high quality professional learning.
The partnership has also provided opportunities to reflect on our current practices and processes; dedicated, uninterrupted time for strategic thinking and improved staff morale through the visit of Star Hub schools who provided positive feedback on our orderly learning environments.
There has also been the potential for leadership development, such as the Harvard Graduate School Course; the Deloittes Courageous Principal Program; and presenting at The Connection Hub Days/Thought Leadership Gatherings (TLGs).
Q: Outside of SVA itself, what has been the most productive partnership you’ve developed through your SVA project? Why has it been productive?
The School Improvement Partnership (SIP) DET initiative allowed us to be partnered with another school with a similar ICSEA score. Observing practices of another school helped our teachers see that they were actually quite knowledgeable around the teaching of reading, and that our school already had sound practices in place.
Our staff were able to contribute to the development of the other school’s practices which, in turn, strengthened our individual and collective efficacy. We strategically aligned the work of the SIP initiative with our SVA Program Logic to ensure we maintained the identified precision focus.
Contribution of another school to your journey
MWPS developed a productive relationship with nearby St. Albans Primary School, Victoria. Through engaging with this school we learnt about the Australian Childhood Trauma Group (the ACT Group) and their services. MWPS were already trained in the Berry Street Education Model for trauma-informed pedagogy.
Engaging with the ACT Group strengthened staff knowledge, skills and practices further. An example of this included starting whole staff reflective practices, and the ACT Group practitioner’s observations of teachers interacting with students as learners in classrooms. Feedback was that teachers were applying the right strategies to assist students in being ‘ready to learn’ and that it would take time to have the desired effect.
The ACT Group reassured them that success with emotionally dysregulated children can be measured by a decrease in frequency, intensity and duration of dysregulated behaviours. Staff capability in achieving this (as measured by formal and informal data) was communicated regularly. This, in turn, assisted in building individual and collective efficacy for MWPS staff.