Niddrie schools lobby to stop the rot

Niddrie schools lobby to stop the rot

Attracting government attention for school funding needs is a key part of the modern principal’s job description. David Adamson, principal at Essendon Keilor College knows that this is only the first step, after that politics intervenes. Joseph Tafra and Nick Schomburgk investigate.

Essendon Keilor College (EKC) has three campuses: East Keilor, Essendon, and Niddrie. Niddrie is most in need of repair, comprised of ‘temporary’ structures now over 50 years old.

The school has twice been promised funding by Labor to address these issues, most recently on July 12 with an announcement of $10 million by Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews and Niddrie MP Ben Carroll.

The money would be used to fully rebuild facilities at the College’s Niddrie campus, as well as to add new rooms in Essendon and East Keilor.

According to Principal David Adamson, it is a fitting reward for his school’s persistence.

It’s not just the demoralising effect of a crumbling campus that is at issue. Adamson says it’s hard to give students a “21st century” education — where teaching is less didactic, more flexible — in the current facilities.

Wooden beams hold up the ceiling in one of EKC's technology classrooms.

Wooden beams hold up the ceiling in one of EKC’s technology classrooms.

Walking the grounds of the Niddrie campus, it is easy to spot rotting timber in windows and brickwork that is falling apart and warping. In one classroom the ceiling is slowly falling in — a temporary brace made from wooden beams stalls its downward drift.

“It has an effect on morale,” says Niddrie campus principal Heather Hawkins says. “Our kids walk out to play at lunch-time and they can see the windows are rotting.”

The run-down facilities have an effect on enrolment too. Funding is tied to student numbers so this creates a negative feedback loop: bad conditions drive down enrolments and funding, and this makes them more difficult to improve.

Adamson blames simple political calculation for EKC missing out: “This is a safe Labor seat, pretty much . . . the government spends money where they’re going to get votes, and that’s not over here.”

David Zyngier, an education researcher from Monash University agrees that because EKC “is in a safe Labor electorate the LNP has not given it any money.”

EKC educates the highest proportion of disadvantaged students in the Niddrie electorate, especially compared to local independent and Catholic schools. This means the struggle to improve conditions at EKC is one in which the stakes are highest for those with the least.

But Adamson and Hawkins have a plan to turn EKC around, assuming funding comes through.

Rotting window frames at EKC's Niddrie campus.

Rotting window frames at EKC’s Niddrie campus.

Going the extra distance in order to gain recognition was important, according to Adamson. “I’ve done a bit of lobbying,” he says. “We’ve had television cameras out here at various times.

While Essendon Keilor College has been in the spotlight, other schools have comparatively been left in the dark. Indeed, Rosehill Secondary College was openly disgruntled by the announcement.

The Niddrie-based school did not wish speak to UniPollWatch on the matter, a newsletter published on August 15 reveals the thoughts of Principal Peter Rouse.

“I have had discussions with Ben (Carroll) since the information became public, expressing my disappointment that once again Rosehill Secondary College has been overlooked by successive politicians for badly needed funding to redevelop our own areas of need,” Rouse writes.

“… I urge as many parents as possible to contact Ben’s office, express their concerns and ask where is the equity in his party’s decision?”

So, why have other schools in the electorate struggled to get the same sort of attention as Essendon Keilor College?

John McClure, a former employee of the Department of Education and now retired, has a wealth of knowledge about school funding. He says that there are certain ways in which schools can effectively gain recognition.

“Some schools were more successful in identifying the urgency of their need,” he says.

“If there’s not the diversity of capabilities on the school council, then often it’s left to one or two people working hard with the principal.

“Whereas, if each member of the school council has a sphere of influence so that they can bring pressure to bear…they’re influencing a wider range of people who then impact on the ultimate decision.”

According to McClure, successful lobbying can often take up to 10 years – but regardless of how long, schools need to maintain a healthy relationship with the Department of Education. “It has to remain positive,” he says.

“If you don’t get what you want first time round, and want to take your bat and ball and go home, it’s going to take you a lot longer.”

Heather Hawkins believes Essendon Keilor College simply “pushed a bit harder” than other schools within the electorate.

“If we don’t have money in the bank to do the rebuilding and revamping, then you’ve got to put your name out there and say – come and have a look,” she says.

“I think David Adamson has been very courageous in saying ‘these are the pictures, have a look at the pictures and make your own mind up.

“Other schools have problems but they don’t want anybody to see them.”

Considering EKC’s place in the Niddrie community and their clear need for capital, Labor’s pledge is a $10 million step in the right direction.

Joseph Tafra and Nick Schomburgk are third-year Bachelor of Journalism students at La Trobe University.