School closure shocks community

THE Latrobe Valley’s education community is still coming to terms with the State Government’s shock decision to close Morwell’s indigenous Woolum Bellum College, a move which has sparked a political blame game.

The college was dealt a fatal blow last Thursday when State Education Minister Martin Dixon announced the school would be closed by the end of the year.

With 11 teaching staff and 27 students currently enrolled, the Woolum Bellum community on Friday was still adjusting to the reality that its 17 year life was coming to an end.

The news comes after a drawn-out review process by the National Curriculum Services found the school was running at unsustainable student staff ratios, and was failing to engage students to the point of improving their attendance, for an eventual reintegration into mainstream education.

The college has acted as a pathways school for year seven to 10 students who had fallen out of mainstream education, to reintegrate them back into schools and provide alternative education.

In a letter to parents dated 10 October explaining his decision to close the school, Mr Dixon said after four months of considering community feedback, it was his view Woolum Bellum was “not providing the standard of education that Victorians expect from government schools, and I am sure you expect for your child”.

“While the government no longer has confidence that Woolum Bellum provides a suitable education and engagement model, it is strongly committed to ensuring all students currently enrolled at the college are fully supported to transition to an appropriate education, training or employment setting,’ the letter said.

However, Woolum Bellum teacher of 12 years Andrea Vanaalst said based on past experiences, she was sceptical about the government’s ability to cater for the students’ needs.

After 12 years under a P-12 model, the school moved to a dedicated high school-age pathway school in 2007, with primary school-aged children transferred into mainstream primary schools.

“We all went through all this quite a few years ago; (government) said they would have all kinds of things set up in place for them – they were going to make sure the kids were treated right and it would be all under protocol, but within a week all the kids were gone, they were taken straight out of the school with no transition process,” Ms Vanaalst said.

“I don’t have confidence in what (the government) are saying; we know some of the kids here will do alright, but a lot of the others we are really worried about and their ability to fit back in; where are they going to go what are they going to do?”

In a press release on Thursday, State Opposition Member for East Victoria Matt Viney slammed the closure, warning it could see 50 per cent of students fall out of the education system.

Mr Viney said the State Government could not be trusted to support public education in the Valley, adding Member for Morwell Russell Northe had “done absolutely nothing to stop this school from closing”.

In response, Mr Northe said the indigenous community had a “strong say” in the decision to close the state’s Koorie pathway schools, and tough decisions had to be made in order to improve indigenous education.

However Lowanna College principal Jason Bek said the Latrobe Valley education community had been in preliminary discussions about Woolum Bellum’s closure, and was going to work in collaboration to ensure no child was left behind.

“Until we really sit down with all these kids we don’t know how many of these kids will drop out, but we first need to look at the definition of what meaningful education looks like (for him),” Mr Bek said.

“We need to stress for some of these kids that they have had a bad rap in education, and before we do anything we need to consider what school is for them .

“For some students that might mean full-time classes, for others it might mean different programs within the schools; schools are getting better at developing alternative teaching resources in tight constraints but we need to first evaluate each of those students as they come back as part of re-enrolment process.”