IN A draughty green metal shed down the back of McClelland Secondary College, 10 noisy students and a couple of teachers are sitting down to lunch. The kids are excited because Travis is cooking his special pancakes.
He brings them proudly to the table. They are wide and irregular, thick and pillowy soft – and an alarming shade of radioactive-looking blue. A slurp of food dye is the secret, explains Travis*, “but don’t worry, they taste just like regular pancakes”.
His schoolmates dig in, smothering them with sliced bananas, golden syrup and pyramids of sugar.
This is what drags most of these usually reluctant students out of bed and off to the school, at Karingal near Frankston. Not Travis’ pancakes alone, but the whole one-day-a-week experience of Hands On Learning, an innovative and successful program that re-engages at risk middle year secondary students with their education.
Small groups work on creative building projects that benefit their school and local community. Importantly, the program greatly increases attendance and retention through building students’ self-esteem, a sense of personal achievement, and relationships with other children and adult role models.
At McClelland they are building and fitting out a “hut” – more like a welcoming meeting room – from an old bike shed; a big chicken coop, paths, compost bins and material bays.
“It’s the best thing about school,” says Lachlan, a 15-year-old with a beanie pulled down over his curls and tie-dyed t-shirt as wildly colourful as the pancakes. “I hated school before this.”
Lachlan unflinchingly describes himself as shy and anti-social, the sort who kept to himself in his room and lived on YouTube and Xbox. But now he introduces himself with confidence and humour: “I am Lachlan Alexander Gourlay, I’m 15, in Year Nine. I like to sing and to sleep in. I originally transferred from another high school, it wasn’t too good for me over there. And that’s basically my life in a nutshell.”
In fact, says one of his teachers, Lachlan is now seen as a team leader, mature and trusted to supervise three or four other kids: “He’s grown up. He’s taken ownership for his actions. Lachie’s really thrived on it.”
Hands On Learning Founder, Russell Kerr, who started the program in 1999 at Frankston High, where he was a teacher, and has seen it expand to 30 schools across Victoria, says that is typical: “Kids will often say it’s a day when they can breathe. They get a lot of pressure in school, they feel a lot of negativity. Here it’s about relationships and acceptance.
“Kids who are disconnected and disenchanted with the normal curriculum, it’s critical to get them early and keep them engaged. If you let them go you don’t get them back and they’ve gone into life with a poor trajectory.”
Lachlan is thriving: “It really helps the students being more confident and talking to others but also helps build trustworthy skills, so they can trust people, and helps build teamwork. That’s the thing I like about it,” he says.
“Hands On is very helpful with kids getting back into their other school work and helps them listen more to teachers and ask for more help.
“If I didn’t have this, I have no idea where I’d be right now. I’d probably be at home, in my room, or something, getting lectures every day from mum.”
* Name has been changed for privacy