Independent schools are getting it right

Dear St Andrew’s community,

On Saturday night, the final show of our Secondary Musical, Footloose culminated in some speeches to thank all involved for their support and efforts.  In recognising the outstanding contributions our staff made to ensure we enjoyed a marvellous show, I reflected briefly on the current media conversation about what constitutes a good education. With the update of Gonski 2.0 being released a couple of weeks ago, it has once again attracted a good deal of media attention as every person with an opinion seems to be an expert.

I made the point in my brief speech that the secret to a quality education is people going above and beyond.  What makes a great Musical is the hours and hours that staff (and students) contribute to working together to achieve a show that exceeds expectations.  What makes a great education however is not just a wonderful display of the performing arts, but the care, time and attention that staff put into everything they do to achieve a goal, both for and with the students in their care.  They set high expectations of themselves and those around them, therefore, great learning takes place.

I am very passionate about this conversation because I am concerned that the media pick up on any bandwagon and education is an easy target.  The ‘answer’ to improving education lies in different structures or more funding, or polarising ideas about how we teach!  Is it all content and knowledge-driven or is it all about 21st century skills like creativity, thinking and problem solving!?  This week’s debate seems to be about individualised learning plans. Rarely is any other profession so commented upon by so many, who themselves probably have no qualification in education.  If you read the papers on the weekend you could be forgiven for being confused with the various opinions, so I thought I would simply share mine and I am happy to be challenged to chat some more.

For me, what underpins a quality education is the people in our organisation - both the staff we employ and the families we enrol.  This includes their valuing of our College community, the value they place on education and the effort they are willing to contribute to that. Whatever your political opinion on funding of schools, recently AHISA (Association of Heads of Independent Schools Australia) reviewed current PISA results to try and understand the alleged decline in the standing of Australia’s education position compared to the rest of the world.  After removing the results of Australian State and systemic Catholic schools out of the results, Australian Independent schools came first in the world in Reading Literacy, second in Scientific Literacy and equal fifth in Mathematical Literacy… so our sector must be doing something very right. I wonder: why doesn’t anyone in the media genuinely ask how Independent schools achieve these results?

When asked to comment on Gonski 2.0, Independent schools submitted their opinions on what makes a great school and a key part of their results was the people and culture in the school community.  Independent schools have the autonomy to employ staff to fit their own culture and  expectations. Independent schools also enrol students and families who actively support the values and ethos of the school.  Other sectors can ‘portion off’ elements of their schools to achieve this in a small section, but Independent schools achieve this across their whole school!

So, what is it that Independent Schools do differently that enables them to achieve these results?

  • Parents are committed to and value education.  As a nation, education is not something Australians value as highly as other countries.  Not a criticism, just a reality.  However, when parents pay for education, that expectation is passed on to children and they are encouraged in the home environment to achieve their personal best. This matters when they all come together and it is reinforced at school.
  • Independent schools, by their very nature, have higher expectations on each individual student. It’s quite hard to ‘fly under the radar’ at an Independent school.   It is why we commit to expectations on our uniform, on showing respect to each other and to staff, on turning up to community building events such as Foundation Day, sporting Carnivals or the Fair, and our enormous commitment to opportunities outside the classroom for students to grow and learn more about themselves.  These things also teach children who live in a very individualised ‘me’ society, to learn about how to generously give of their time and efforts to something which is larger and bigger than themselves.
  • Independent schools are able to employ their own staff through our model of autonomous leadership. We can independently direct our efforts responsively to where they are needed.  This means we can create a culture where the focus is on the learning journey of each and every student. We can also value each student for their achievements and growth, across the whole spectrum of what makes up a contributing citizen in our wider society.

These comments are not designed to polarise opinion, but rather to shed light on the fact that it is the teachers, our staff, who have the greatest impact on our culture and on the outcomes of our children. I hope that these comments are also helpful to parents who may feel that education in Australia is always portrayed as ‘doom and gloom’.  The teaching profession is sadly laden down by external factors that prefer to hinder the growth of the profession rather than find ways to let it flourish. However I am by nature an optimist, and I love that I have both the privilege and the opportunity to be a teacher in a great Independent school. To lead a school that strives for excellence, and to lead a wonderful staff of professional educators who genuinely seek to uphold our culture and vision for a great education for every student at St Andrew’s.

If you have a moment please take the opportunity to thank our staff who do go above and beyond for our students both within and outside the classroom. We have a link at the end of the Bulletin for compliments and comments if you prefer this to an email.   These are the people who care for your children, but also set high expectations for our students and who provide them with opportunities where they learn so that as they graduate they are able to walk confidently into their futures.

Reverend Chris Ivey