Average VCE study scores among Ballarat's public secondary schools are increasing, bucking a statewide trend of regional and rural students falling well behind their city peers.
Analysis of statewide VCE figures showed regional and rural senior students had lower average VCE study scores that metropolitan students, with the difference widening, prompting the state government to announce a review in to the issue and make recommendations on how to bridge the growing gap.
But VCE students at Ballarat's five government secondary schools have all made gains in their average study scores over the past seven years.
One of the positives for a community like Ballarat, where you have identified some good results and improvement, is ... this shouldn't just be about looking at negatives and what are the problems but what some of our school communities are doing to respond to some of the challenges we have in a whole range of areas.Australian Education Union Victorian president Meredith Peace
Local principals were not surprised at the improvement, revealing that in recent years they have begun to work closely together to help enhance student outcomes.
The leadership and VCE teams from the schools meet together at least once each term to share knowledge and work together to strengthen educational opportunities.
"We have a shared understanding, we share subjects, we deliver courses and work collaboratively with what we teach and how we teach. We have a strong collegiate secondary environment of five schools who work and collaborate together," said Ballarat High School principal Gary Palmer.
Currently all schools have a focus on literacy as a basis for success in all subjects.
Another key that sets Ballarat's schools, both government and private, apart from many other regional and rural schools are the city's two universities, strong TAFE sector and group training options which provide pathways for students post-school.
Students with a pathway to work toward and strong school attendance tend to be more engaged, connected and motivated to do well.
The city's reputation as an education hub for all schooling sectors also makes recruitment of high-quality teachers easier than in some more remote parts of the state where filling vacancies can be more of a challenge.
Mount Rowan Secondary College principal Seona Murnane said Ballarat's schools worked hard to ensure their students had the same chances to attend extra lectures and learning opportunities as their city peers.
"There are lectures that the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority put on in Melbourne that are subject-specific in the lead up to exams," Ms Murnane said.
"You do have to organise your kids to go along to those, and make sure when those type of things happen in your regions that they can access those."
Ms Murnane said all Ballarat schools were working hard to improve their student outcomes through process, partnerships and collaboration.
"Because our school is smaller we run a lot of small classes so we've got to create partnerships with other schools.
"And now we have a community of practice for VCE teachers across Ballarat which works really well. As a group we work together, go and visit schools together, have meetings to share who is teaching what at different schools.
"I would say in the country we've got to share more and collaborate more ... so students don't miss out. And that's what it's all about, making sure our kids don't miss out."
Mr Palmer said his school had also had a strong focus and had made policy changes on attendance, study practice, assessments and exam familiarisation which was helping senior students achieve strong results.
"Over the past five years we have put in a formal structure around assessments so one of the things we have done this year is that during (teacher) professional development days it's not a day off for the senior students - they come and do their assessments together.
Every Victorian child has a right to a great education and the best opportunities at school – regardless of where they live.— James Merlino (@JamesMerlinoMP) June 17, 2019
We are already doing a lot to tackle the gap between regional and metro kids but we want to look at what’s next.
"That way they're not doing assessments in class time, so they're getting more class time to revise. And what it means is that every kid does the English SAC together at the same time in the exam centre which is good practice and builds confidence for exams.
"I think all schools are getting smarter in process and policy but there is also a focus every Ballarat public school on literacy."
Analysis of VCE median study scores by The Age found more than 60 per cent of state high schools in the country and regions and almost 50 per cent of non-government schools have deteriorated over the past decade.
Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority data for 100 state high schools outside Melbourne shows the average VCE performance of 61 schools had worsened, eight schools improved and the remaining 31 have maintained their results.
Finding out why rural students are falling behind their metropolitan counterparts and supporting them to get up to speed will be the key focus of the new Expert Advisory Panel for Rural and Regional Students, which will travel throughout Victoria in the coming weeks.
Education mininster James Merlino ordered the panel in response to NAPLAN results which show regional and rural students are on average 20 points behind city peers.
The panel, lead by VCAA chief executive Dr David Howes, and including principals and regional education experts, will meet with key stakeholders in Ballarat, Bendigo, Horsham, Mildura, Morwell, Wangaratta and Warrnambool in July and August.
Its findings and recommendations will help inform the government's future decisions on supports needed to help regional and rural schools and students.
"We are already doing a lot to boost results in regional and rural Victoria, but we now need to look at what more we can do and that is why this panel is so important," Mr Merlino said.
Australian Education Union Victorian president Meredith Peace said as well as looking at the challenges that rural and regional schools face, the panel should look at success stories like Ballarat to see what measures they use could be implemented more widely across the state.
"One of the positives for a community like Ballarat, where you have identified some good results and improvement, is ... this shouldn't just be about looking at negatives and what are the problems but what some of our school communities are doing to respond to some of the challenges we have in a whole range of areas," she said.
"It's fantastic that local communities are looking at solutions that are best for their kids," she said.
"But we need a systemic response to this, which has been an issue for many years."
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