30 January 2023

Financially challenged families urged to reach out as children head back to school

| Claire Fenwicke
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Four students and two adults seated at a school

Education Minister Yvette Berry and Evelyn Scott School principal Jackie Vaughan speaking with nervous – but excited – Year Seven students Noah, Emma, Aadya and Ella. Photo: Claire Fenwicke.

It’s a busy week for Canberra families and educators as 51,000 students are welcomed back into public school classrooms across the Territory.

But as cost of living pressures continue to bite, families have been urged to reach out to their schools for support to find out what financial options could be available to them.

Education Minister Yvette Berry said the ACT Government was re-examining the Future of Education Equity Fund to see what Canberrans need to start the new term.

And you could be eligible no matter your circumstances.

“It’s not a cut and dry, black and white kind of situation, there will be lots of different things that can occur for all families that might mean at a certain point in time they might need that extra financial support,” Ms Berry said.

“The best thing to do is talk with their school about their challenges and then they can be pointed in the right direction for what kinds of support [they could receive].”

The ACT Government is also in the process of identifying five schools to pilot a new free lunch program for students in need.

“All our schools provide different kinds of support, including free lunches and breakfast, but we want to make that a system-wide approach,” Ms Berry said,

“We know you can’t learn on an empty stomach.”

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Cost of living pressures are also impacting our educators, with negotiations with unions continuing over teachers’ wages.

Ms Berry said ACT’s teachers had the highest salaries in the country and she wanted that to continue.

“But we also want to address some of the issues that the Education Union, through their members, have raised with us around workloads, and that will form part of our negotiations as well,” she said.

On a positive note, the ACT’s public schools have started the new year fully staffed, but Ms Berry noted there were still some vacancies to fill in specialist roles.

However, it’s expected they will be filled over the next couple of days.

Ms Berry said the Education Directorate would be continually recruiting to make up for absences throughout the year as well.

“The majority of our schools have staff for every teaching space, and we’ll continue to work with those schools to fill spaces when required, particularly those specialist areas like languages or sciences or music,” she said.

“The Education Directorate has a pool of relief staff they can access that they can put into a school when it’s required.”

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All this as the ACT celebrates its 50th year of public education, with the first students walking through the doors of the Evelyn Scott School senior campus.

The school has been purpose-built for inquiry learning, which means students and teachers won’t be restricted to one learning space and it encourages more collaboration between educators.

Principal Jackie Vaughan said the senior campus had been two years in the making, with a lot of preparatory work done by teachers during Term Four last year.

She said everyone was nervous but excited to start turning their visions into reality.

“Establishing that future-focused learning continuum is going to be our next challenge. It’s all well and good to have plans but now it’s about putting all that into action,” Ms Vaughan said.

While inquiry-based learning isn’t new, this is the first time a Canberra school space has been designed with the education method in mind.

“Something new this year [was] working with the architects and looking at how these contemporary spaces can facilitate our future-focused learning model, so it all fits together,” Ms Vaughan said.

It comes as the curriculum is moving away from “compartmentalising” specialties such as English and maths to create a more collaborative approach to teaching and learning.

“We’re not getting rid of specialisations. What we’re asking people to do is be able to facilitate interdisciplinary projects as a team working together,” Ms Vaughan said.

“We still need all those specialities, but we just need a shift in pedagogy and a shift in the way that we work with children and young people.”

Evelyn Scott School cost $70 million to build and won the ACT Master Builders Association 2022 Sustainable Commercial Project Award.

It’s also the first ACT school named after an Aboriginal woman – Dr Evelyn Scott.

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The best thing the ACT education system can do is provide free lunches at schools for all school children. At least then the children will get some food (preferably healthy and vegetarian).

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