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doing school differently.

a behind the scenes look into SA’s Hospital School.

“Every young person and family that are here have their well-being tested and it comes on a daily basis, and it can be on a minute-by-minute basis. So, we have to underpin everything we do with that wellbeing lens”.

In August 2023, we had the opportunity to sit with Matthew McCurry, Principal of South Australia’s Hospital School, to learn the crucial role the school, and its Pastoral Care Worker has, in supporting the lives of young people and their families during some of the most challenging of circumstances.

Matthew has been the principal at Hospital School SA, (a school that operates across 3 campuses within 3 of SA’s hospitals - SA Women’s & Children’s Hospital, Lyle McEwin Hospital, and Flinders Medical Centre) for the last 5 years.

Prior to this he was part of the leadership at Youth Education Centre, where he experienced the numerous benefits of working with SMG Pastoral Care Workers and what they can bring to a school with multiple complex needs.

“I'm personally not a faith-based person but when I arrived at the hospital school, and saw that we didn't have a pastoral care worker, I felt like there was a space for someone to come in here and add value to that wraparound support that so important, that's when we started working with SMG to find community churches that were willing to support the position here, and that's when we brought in Coralie.”

Principal Matthew and PCW Coralie facing one another while standing at an office desk

Principal Matthew and PCW Coralie in Mathew's office.

Thousands of children from all over South Australia, and parts of the Northern Territory, are supported by the caring team of educators and support staff each year, as they undergo treatment for medical conditions, that impacts both physical and/or mental health. For many, this allows a continuity of education whilst they are away from their normal classroom.

“It's really important for us to connect with our young people and our families because every single one of them is outside of what is their normal”.. “Every single one of them is being impacted” added Mathew as he went on to tell us how so many children, families and school communities are affected in the event of mental or physical illness.

“Since 2019, Hospital School SA has seen a 62% increase in acute child and adolescent mental health presentations and admissions across SA. It's never been more clear that mental health is everybody's business. We all have a responsibility. We all have a role” continued Matthew.

“It's a roller coaster of emotions, a false reality that is outside the norm”, he adds, referring to daily life for young people and families in hospital and how Coralie engages with their needs. “To be able to connect with families, to able to identify the correct supports, how much to say, what not to say, [and] when to, all of that is on a daily, minute by minute basis.”

PCW Coralie walking the wards at Flinders Medical Centre, Paediatric Ward.

PCW Coralie walking the wards at Flinders Medical Centre, Paediatric Ward.

“She [Coralie] does it across three different campuses with three different local health networks, and three very different cohorts of family and challenges"

Coralie has been supporting Hospital School SA for 2 years now. Prior to this, Coralie was a PCW within SA Government Schools in the western suburbs of Adelaide.

These days she works alongside 35 staff members and considers the Hospital School to be somewhat like that of an Area School, having the full range of Primary and Secondary schooling, including a Preschool at the Lyle McEwin.

“I work 2 days a week at Women's and Children's campus, 1 day at the Lyle McEwin, and 1 day at Flinders Medical Centre, so yeah, I think what makes my role different at Hospital School is obviously (it’s) a different setting” says Coralie, “we have a lot of kids coming in and coming out, so it's a lot harder to build relationships.”

“We have kids from both private and public sectors coming in” added Coralie, “we have kids from the metro area, rural area, and also Northern Territory coming down here along with their siblings. So, we don't just support the kids who were in for treatment, we also support their siblings and their families”.

“When Coralie walks into the room it makes Joseph light up and get excited because she gives him the attention that he needs to thrive and to improve his wellbeing” – Mother of teenager Joseph, who has complex medical needs and has spent 9 months over two years at Hospital School SA

As part of the PCW role at Hospital School, Coralie engages with each student’s “Home School” - the school from which they usually attend. Often this connection point at each school can be another PCW who is available to extend support to the wider school community, many of whom feel the loss of a friend or fellow classmate, and don’t know when they are coming home or even if they are ok.

Coralie often spends time coordinating connection for students and families returning to their communities as a way of increasing the level of support that can sometimes be missed. This smooths the way when the student and their family return home with as much care as possible. Such support is considered incredibly important by the team at Hospital School, especially during times of a grief, should a student pass away.

“If a child passes away in the community, their enrolled school will get crisis support as it is a time of great impact and not something that generally happens often” says Coralie, “and a PCW will get extra resourcing for that, whereas that's part of our everyday here”.

“You're working together for that common goal, we need unity to best support people in difficult circumstances” continues Coralie, “here [at] Hospital School we work very well as a team, and it's the focus that is around teamwork. Same as a lot of schools, but it's a different level I think here at Hospital School, probably more than any other school I've worked at”.

“I like to lift people up and that's my first thing that I will try to do, but some situations you've got to do the total opposite. You just got to actually be quiet and listen and walk alongside people and be there to nearly be like a safe place to land when stuff's going on”.

Hospital School SA Primary Classroom, Women's and Children's Hospital.

Hospital School SA Primary Classroom, Women's and Children's Hospital.

Coralie shares that developing the skill to ‘read’ a room quite quickly is incredibly important. “You're not just reading the child's response, you are reading the parents responses, you're watching to see how staff are also interacting within that space, so to work out how to best support everybody within that one scenario is challenging”.

“I love that I've got so many different aspects of my job, it's so different from day to day I have no idea what's going to happen in the day. I walk in the room, I won't even know what children are going to be in the classroom from one day to the next because it can change very, very, quickly. You're not trying to solve a problem you're just walking alongside and being there when people need you.”

Coralie has found that understanding what it means to have faith helps during times when people feel their world has turned upside-down even if they are of a different or no faith. She says “in times of crisis, the lines kind of blur a little bit and they [families] value someone who has a Faith. It doesn't necessarily have to match their own, but that understanding that faith can make a difference in their decision making, it can make a difference in how they view things. So that's an extra layering which I think is quite valuable”. 

Empty bed, Flinders Medical Centre Paediatric Ward

Empty bed, Flinders Medical Centre Paediatric Ward

“An aspect of working at Hospital School and working in this environment” Says Matthew “is that young people are in a particular position with their health, and that can lead to young people passing away and that is something that happens in this environment, there's not regularity behind it but in some ways there is.”

Matthew and his team have worked hard at refining the process of communication in the event of a young person passing away. “I find out that information before many people do” says Matthew, “and one of my first contacts is with Coralie and we look at what is our next steps over those days, weeks, or months, and we check in on a regular basis and we update each other.”

Handling delicately communication of a passing while maintaining confidential, respectful, and sensitive support during those times of grief and loss is incredibly important. “it's vital for her [Coralie] to be within that process, and in that core team that then have to support each other, our staff, our families, their colleagues” adds Mathew. 

“Grief and loss, at these times, these you know just ripples out. And so, we are central to that, and we're grateful that we are the people that do that. But it's important that we really know our stuff when it comes to being supportive, and Coralie has definitely helped shape that”.

Women's and Children's Hospital building North Adelaide, SA.

Women's and Children's Hospital building North Adelaide, SA.

As incredible and vital Coralie’s role is as a PCW at Hospital School SA, her time is restricted to 12 hours per week due to funding limitations under the National Student Wellbeing Program (NSWP). Thankfully, the school was recently blessed with a short boost of additional funding, temporarily increasing Coralie’s time at the school until December 2023, a time when all available funding comes to an end. And with this, the very real possibility of Coralie’s role at Hospital School SA.

Like all South Australian Schools, Hospital School SA is required to re-apply for the NSWP grant to secure another 4 years. 

Should the school be successful in their application, Coralie’s time spent with children and families in the hospital may continue. The funding available for each school hasn’t changed since the start of the program in 2007. It hasn’t taken into account the rising cost of living.  

2024 funding will cover no more than 10 hours per week split between the three campuses, an allocation of time working across three sites that will not provide the support vulnerable young people and their families need.

Currently there are 356 State Government Schools in South Australian that have access to NSWP funding, with more than 500 State schools that have been encouraged to apply, there is no guarantee that Hospital School SA will retain their funding in 2024.

In 2024 to 2027 successful schools will receive funding of $20,280 per annum for 300 hours of service per year. 

For those schools who may lose funding, SMG is asking for a continuation of support from a variety of places, with the belief that it takes a community to support the wellbeing of school aged children. Many churches across SA are partnering with private businesses and individual donors to support the needs of schools who currently do not have access to NSWP funding.

Such partnerships are crucial to the continuation of Pastoral Care services into the new year.

If you would like to learn more and partner with SMG to fund the work SMG Pastoral Car Workers do within schools like Hospital School SA, donate today and give generously.