Some of Victoria’s most vulnerable students whose mental health and personal problems were exacerbated by last year’s COVID-19 lockdowns are yet to return to the classroom more than six months after remote learning ended.
Their non-attendance threatens to cost some specialist schools for disengaged young people significant government funding, even as they continue to offer those students some form of remote learning.
Hester Hornbrook Academy principal Sally Lasslett (centre) with teacher Eric Woodward and youth worker Felicity Gibbons.Credit:Eddie Jim
Hester Hornbrook Academy, a “last chance high” for students who have left or been ejected from mainstream schools, faces the loss of more than $1 million in funding this year with as many as 50 of the school’s 250 students continuing to learn remotely.
“During COVID we provided all of our students with a laptop and an internet connection and that’s a way that we’ve been able to keep the connection, but unfortunately for some of them it means they don’t actually come to school,” principal Sally Lasslett said.
Ms Lasslett said the looming loss of funding could force the school, which has campuses in Prahran, Sunshine and the city, to cut back on some support programs and threatened to permanently derail the education of some of the state’s most vulnerable teenagers.
“They were set back in their education already,” Ms Lasslett said. “We are a bit like the TV show Last Chance High. If we can’t pick them up, who’s going to do it?”
Students who come to the academy normally take about six months to settle into a routine of regular attendance, Ms Lasslett said.
Many struggle with anxiety, substance abuse issues or behavioural problems that have seen them expelled or “pushed out the back door” at mainstream schools, Ms Lasslett said.
“For us, COVID was a major road bump because we built their ability to trust us and feel safe in our school and then we sent them back home.”
An August census of on-site student enrolments will determine government funding for schools such as Hester Hornbrook.
The school charges no fees and is entirely reliant on federal and state funding of about $36,000 for each student a year, which also covers the cost of employing a youth worker in every class.
Students and staff at Hester Hornbrook Academy, which is struggling to convince many students to return to the classroom after lockdown.
Funding is provided on a per-student basis and students are only counted by the federal Education Department if “the student has a pattern of regular attendance at the school … during the year”.
Last year, Victorian schools in lockdown were exempted from this requirement, but the exemption will not continue in 2021.
Independent Schools Victoria chief executive Michelle Green said schools such as Hester Hornbrook played an essential role in supporting students who had fallen through the cracks.
“Many schools showed they could successfully deliver remote learning during last year’s COVID-19 restrictions – something that was recognised in federal government funding arrangements,” she said.
“We hope that the official definition of school attendance can continue to recognise the crucial importance of remote and flexible learning for disengaged and disadvantaged students.”
A spokesperson for the department said: “Special provisions relating to COVID-19 and remote learning have been removed, and students will need to meet the physical attendance requirements in the census reference period.”
Other specialist schools for disengaged young people have also reported a serious setback in student progress this year.
David Roycroft, principal of Oakwood, a state government secondary school for disengaged young people, said most students had returned this year, but many have come back with significant mental health issues, leading to meltdowns and an inability to cope.
“For sure there will be kids who we have lost but the majority of kids have come back,” Mr Roycroft said.
“A range of kids are presenting with significant issues in their life, and we have probably spent the best part of 2020 with students who have not had the supports around them that they’ve usually had, so that’s concertinaed a whole bunch of problems into the start of this year.”
Victoria’s Education Department said it had provided case management support through its Navigator program for more than 2000 students since August last year.
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