By Brenton Prosser PhD
Over the last few years, there has been growing interest around school-led community initiatives to respond to challenges in areas of entrenched disadvantage. It is not as though community hubs are a new idea, while place-based projects have been around for over a decade. But it raises the question of what the research says about how to make these place-based projects successful and sustainable?
My first academic job, now over a decade ago, was as part of a team on a three-year Australian Research Council Linkage project that targeted individual and regional capacity building in schools. Supported by ten schools across the car manufacturing ‘rustbelt’ north of Adelaide, this place-based project worked with teachers and principals to improve student retention and achievement.
These were and are tough places to live. Like many other places experiencing persistent communal disadvantage in Australia this region struggled with entrenched poverty, long-term unemployment, crime, family violence and associated issues. But equally, the story was not all negative.
The book that we published at the project’s completion amply demonstrated the power of using community connections as a resource to reengage and retain learners. Using approaches such as ‘virtual schoolbags’ and ‘funds of knowledge’ teachers were able to shift the focus from student deficits to life resources. This resulted in greater student engagment and rigour in learning.
The research team also identified some important lessons about what it takes to sustain such successes in schools.
Lessons Learned from the SA Rustbelt
First, it can’t rely just on the passion or excellence of individual teachers. If it does, it will not extend across a school community, and even if it doesn’t, it will most likely fade once those people move on. Not surprisingly, community capacity building requires genuine involvement by the community at every level.
Second, it must focus on early intervention and the transitions between levels of schooling. In the project, we conducted a survey of students across the middle years of school. What we found was a strong attitudinal shift from aspiration in primary school to considering early school leaving by Year Nine. This was due to the impact of deficit views amongst teachers and within communities. Again, schools and communities need to partner to resist deficit views and support aspiration.
Third, it must incorporate support for the family. Kids do not leave their life issues at the classroom door to become clean slates for learning. And when young people respond to our support, we can’t risk leaving them alone in unsupportive family and community environments. For education strategies to work, they need to be integrated with other services that address health and social determinants. This is not just a matter of schools ‘plugging in’ social services or ‘copy and pasting’ models from one place to another. Rather, it must be a multi-directional partnership that connects school, home and communities in a way that addresses their specific needs and is a key to unlocking entrenched disadvantage.
More than ten years on, it is exciting to see place-based pilots and projects emerging that seek to deliver on these three lessons. Such projects are leading the way with strategies to lift educational achievement, improve accessibility and outcomes of social services, as well as resist the debilitating effect of deficit views in communities.
Exploring integrated approaches at Doveton College
One example is Doveton College, east of Melbourne, which embodies the ‘wrap-around hub’ school model. It has been subject to print and radio interest in recent times. It was formed from the merger of four state schools within an area of entrenched disadvantage. It provides school services from pre-birth to early adulthood and family/social services for the whole community.
This model picks up on four essential elements for integrated school success, these are:
- Flipping whole-of-school models from an emphasis on ‘teaching to save at risk students’ to ‘integrating a platform of services to serve families and communities’;
- Starting support as early as possible through pre-school services and using day-long care to instruct children in the skills they need (and so they do not fall behind);
- Build on the foundation of families telling their story once and using ‘warm referrals’ to connect them to services on site and increase take up;
- Expect excellence and show pride in the achievements of every member in the school community.
The progress of this model is demonstrated by it being the basis for funding a further ten school partnerships between the Colman Foundation and the Victorian Government.
The Logan Together place-based strategy
Another example of the place-based approach is located in Logan, south of Brisbane, where the Logan Together initiative is unfolding.
In its submission to the current Parliamentary Inquiry into Intergenerational Welfare Dependence, the Logan Together group argued that place-based approaches are vital due to the geographical concentration of disadvantage in Australia. Based on their research, they identify eight practical criteria for successful models. These are:
- Take a long-term, whole-of-population approach at the place level;
- Identify high-leverage change strategies across the health, education, social services sectors and the community itself;
- Embed these strategies in an inter-generational, life-course or “cradle to career” framework that focuses on key phases in human development from birth (indeed pregnancy) forward;
- Create strategic coordination capability (a Backbone Team ) and local level governance and collaboration arrangements (collective impact approaches) to deliver the strategies;
- Include local people and local leaders in all aspects of planning and decision making;
- Focus on capability building as well as service delivery;
- Establish an authorising environment that allows local initiatives to be quickly supported and responded to by very senior stakeholders where required;
- Coordinate investment and reform systems to support roll out.
Their submission identifies similar strategies for change as those in our previous research, such as taking an early-years approach, investing in community-level action and aligning social services (and funding) to target community need.
In their view, growing and supporting the next generation by targeting communities must be a national priority. It is a view supported by the Commonwealth Department of Social Services, which has approved Logan as one of ten sites for place-based project funding as part of its Growing Stronger Together strategy over the next ten years.
A place for Catholic Social Services across Australia
The ‘wrap-around hub’ and integrated social services approach aligns well with Catholic principles. This includes the importance of family and individual dignity. It also aligns with a history of social justice and embracing diversity in Catholic schools and social services. Meanwhile the ‘place-based’ emphasis maps well with the archdiocese structure and there is potential to use the national coverage of Catholic agencies and parishes to target services locally. This could be achieved without the bureaucratic constraint faced by different levels of government in a federal system. Most importantly, these approaches can help us more efficiently, effectively and consistently serve the poor and vulnerable from cradle to aged care.
Members across our national network are already attuned to this opportunity. In Tasmania, Catholic Care is developing a Social Impact Program that combines public housing, schooling and social services. In Queensland, there are plans in place to combine schooling, child care, family counselling and disability services. Meanwhile, in Sydney there have already been pilots that embed family support workers in schools, working alongside school counsellors and teachers. Elsewhere, we see examples of connected services or community hubs in early years care or regional centres, but these place-based approaches often do not translate across to urban schools.
While the concept of place-based is not new, the focus on it by government is. And as these and other place-based opportunities emerge, school and service leaders need to refer to the research in their decision-making. They will need to monitor advances in using ‘wrap-around hub’ schools as logical, integrated and trusted hubs to amplify both the sense of belonging and quality of service in communities (particularly those that experience persistent disadvantage).The Catholic Church is also well placed to take the lead in establishing these hubs and emphasise again its ongoing service to poor and vulnerable communities.
CSSA aims to support its membership in the development of integrated place-based service models. It can leverage research that identifies what makes these projects successful and draw together the emerging experience of members across our national network. As Research Director, Brenton Prosser is also available to provide support, share expertise on place-based projects and facilitate conversations across the membership. Please contact Brenton.Prosser@cssa.org.au for more information.