LECT Study Trip to Australia, August 2009
I have seen a large number of Australian teachers teach in the UK in several schools I have worked in. A generalised impression would be that colleagues who have trained in Australia seem to be more naturally able to plan lessons taking into account individual students learning styles. Anecdotally, being a part of colleagues planning together at Rush Croft, I have seen colleagues trained in Australia talk about the individuals in their class and the reason for certain activities.
So my interest has been piqued about how learning styles are integrated into teacher training and professional development in Australia.
Though Barbara Prashnig lectures in New Zealand, the proximity (at least in my head) of these two countries, coupled with the truism that they share a first language led me to believe that Learning Styles (Prashnig’s forte) are a focus in schools in Australia and Brisbane, and getting underneath this was a real aim.
I therefore wanted to try to uncover how leadership in schools in Brisbane encourages and embeds innovative teaching for all learners.
In addition, in the context of recent apologies to aboriginal natives in Australia from the Australian Prime Minister, I wanted to look at how this is played out on the ground, and its resonance with our own recent developments around Community Cohesion. Waltham Forest schools have embraced Community Cohesion as a concept, but talking to colleagues would suggest that this is played out in different schools in different ways. I think this is a strength, but wanted to uncover how similar initiatives are evolving under a different political, social and (to some extent) economic situation and establish what we can learn in Waltham Forest.
Finally, in my career I have found that the highest quality of professional development I have experienced has been when I have had the opportunity to have extensive conversations about pedagogy, leadership and the fabric of schooling with fellow professionals, and though we were flying to the other side of the world, I was anticipating a high degree of stimulating collaborative professional conversations and practice. In all of the above, my focus was on leadership and the impact or potential impact of leadership.
I will not try to outline all of the activities, but the ones that had most bearing on my practice back at home. This section will act as a part-commentary on those activities.
Upon being greeted by our hosts (the Queeensland Independent Education Union) in Brisbane, it was clear that the itinerary for the week was predominantly religious schools. In fact, seven out of the eight schools we were to visit were religious schools where a significant section of the school population (or in some cases, virtually all of the school population) were paying school fees (and in some cases very hefty school fees. Like many of my colleagues, I have only worked in state schools in the UK and the notion of “free education” is one that is established in my psyche – I cannot imagine working in a school that charges fees; I cannot imagine working in an Independent School, let alone an overtly religious one!
My first impression, therefore, was that there was unlikely to be very much that I felt I could learn from these schools. In fact, I felt very disappointed even prior to the first school visit, as my perception (as an outsider in every sense) of both religious schools and independent schools is that they are a world apart (let alone half a world away) from the experience of the students in the school I teach in.
The first school we visited, St Paul’s School in Woodridge, is a Primary school in a less affluent area of Queensland. A large proportion (though not a majority) of students are on subsidised or free places. I remember being inspired by the head teacher, who was intensely proud of both her school, and of her students. The identity project that she showed us; students taking part in a photography project related to themselves in their surroundings, was of the highest quality, and represented for me a very significant development of an understanding of the self and others.
St Paul’s is a Catholic school, and we could see overt religious symbols and instruction to pray in every classroom and at regular intervals. However it was not this that dominated the discussion. The discussion at St Paul’s was dominated by how to get the community involved in the school, and furthermore the schools efforts over the past few years, and ongoing efforts and plans, to place itself at the centre of its community in Woodridge. This was a value communicated by every member of staff we spoke to, backed (albeit modestly) financially and was integral to the schools planning processes. The head teacher could speak ably and with passion about how this value, or community, family (in a broad sense) and catholic values had turned the school into one that was achieving.
Following this visit, I was less reluctant to visit schools that were overt religious schools as I felt I had experienced a school that was ‘working’, and I could see how it reinforced our own priorities around developing ourselves at Rush Croft as a school integral to the local community.
Our discussion that evening were dominated by our collective and personal changing perception of religious schools per se. Some members of the group were not as reluctant as I was to visit denominational schools, but it is fair to say that we were not as closed towards those schools as we had been.
The following day the visit to St ThomasMore College in Sunnybank was as inspiring as the visit to St Paul’s. In many ways, STMC felt to me like the secondary equivalent of St Paul’s. The highlight of this school was the students. This seems like a drab statement that actually says nothing, but the students were as passionate and articulate as the head teacher. They believed in their school, had a genuine say in how it was, and could talk at length about the improvements. It is fair to say that all the schools we visited had a great deal more space than our schools in Waltham Forest, but it is also fair to say that this should not be used as an excuse not to be inspired by what we saw in Queensland. STMC takes student voice seriously, not because they have to (and in many ways, I have seen and even been a part of taking student voice seriously “because we’re ticking a box”) but because it is a genuine lever for school improvement.
The biggest comparison between the two schools was the presence, in everything that was said, of the school’s values. The students spoke of catholic values and of how they dictated the school’s priorities, and it was inspiring to see that these values were shared by students and staff.
I have no doubt that the “best” (for want of a better word) students were picked, but even that notwithstanding, I found the students engaging young people who were clearly prepared to leave their mark on the outside world, and that’s what I’m in education for. This introduced another theme of the week, which was that in Queensland there didn’t seem to be anything like the same level of pressure regarding exam results and testing. Indeed, there are no mandatory tests at all in Queensland (even at school leaving age) and though it may be changing (and to be fair, the colleagues we met across the state were split as to whether it was a good idea), there was no artificial standardisation across states, nor is there a national curriculum (something that is definitely changing, and something that is a shame, in my opinion).
In the afternoon of Tuesday 4th August, we visited Lourdes Hill College in Hawthorne, a girls secondary school in an affluent area with perhaps the best views of any school in the world. Situated on the Brisbane river, this boasted some of the best facilities (and examination results) of any school in Queensland (and a price to match) including the Sailing lessons on the actual river. The recent building works were unbelievable, the plans amazing, and the whole experience a little surreal. Though I was amazed by the school, and once again the passion of the staff and the level of articulation of the students there, I found it hard to take anything different away from the school. This is not to do it a disservice though, because what I did take away was the real focus on values. I also noticed that it was the third school that mentioned the apology to the Aboriginal people, though despite my original aims I didn’t talk at length about the impact of this nor enquire what the school was actually doing at length. It was becoming clear, though, that there were several layers to the values that we were seeing. The element of Teamwork, that Lourdes Hill took very seriously, wasn’t just present in every discussion, but was present in every classroom, and there was a big competition board for teams to compare performance each week. This was very well resourced financially and students took it seriously. But additionally, there were values of Australian schools displayed in every school. Asking about this, I established that this is compulsory, but it did strike me that it was more than a display; colleagues in the schools actually believed in these values and they did dictate practice. I wondered if it is possible to – on such a macro level – establish that kind of buy-in across another whole country (and I don’t think it’s been done with Community Cohesion – yet!), and wondered if it even had been.
Anyway, Lourdes Hill illustrated the values particular to the school, particular to the Catholic schools collectively, and particular to Queensland and Australia – three different levels. Values were becoming a big part of the trip and dominated our discussions that evening. I think it’s fair to say that the majority of colleagues from Waltham Forest didn’t share the Catholic values that were being promoted, but the idea of collective values being behind everything we do in school was a very positive one.
St Peter’s Lutheran College in Indooroopilly was the most spectacular school we saw in Queensland. We literally had to be bussed about the campus – there were three major sports facilities and it felt like a well resourced university. As one would expect, it had a price tag to match, but by now I felt that there was something we could get out of every school, and in particular something we could contribute to every school. Without wishing to be disparaging, this was the one school where I did feel that there was some contributions we could make, particularly with regard to curriculum, but it felt like we were being “sold” to. We were not able to speak to any students at all, and though the facilities were impressive, and the impact of values very evident, it was not clear how the college got around it’s sheer size. It is several schools within a school, so there is a level of personalised provision, but it felt very very, well, big.
The main impact of St Peter’s on me was to start thinking about the impact that marketing can have. Having studied Economics, I’m always aware that it appears that a system with a large degree of marketing and advertising always seems to me to be particularly inefficient. But I started to think of marketing not just as us selling ourselves, but selling our students achievements; of selling them their achievements. This was something I continued to ponder later in the visit when we went to St Paul’s school (not related to the school in Woodridge).
Our visits to primary schools Our Lady of the Rosary in Kenmore and St Edward the Confessor in Daisy Hill were stimulating, but by now much of the discussion had been shaped. The impact of “values” and shared values was becoming prevalent. We had a number of conversations about what we felt our values are. I spoke about sport, and the essential characteristics of teamwork, competition, fair play and so on, and I also spoke about fun and the primacy of learning. I genuinely can’t say that I feel those values are shared either with the entire school community or with the community outside of school. I cannot claim that at my school we have done enough work on establishing core, shared values.
At Yeronga High school, the only state school we visited, we saw what I would consider a far more comprehensive intake than previously. The Deputy Head that showed us round spoke about the integration of students of Vietnamese, African and Australian descent (and other ethnicities) and the work they had done for this. I did, however, find it very difficult to get around the feeling that there were excessively low aspirations at the school. I am not a fan of this phrase – it’s associated with OFSTED in the United Kingdom, and I reject most of it’s usage, but I heard “these type of students” referred to a lot. It was also noticeable that for its mixed intake, there were no multi-racial groups of friends mixing amongst the students and the answers to questions about this were very evasive. I spoke to a colleague of mine and we agreed that in the UK we would have called it complacent, but said that this perhaps reflects the difference between multiculturalism as an established political movement in the United Kingdom, and as an emerging one in Australia. I was disappointed with the visit but encouraged by our work in the United Kingdom, and particularly in Waltham Forest.
In many ways the final visit, to St Pauls, an all through 3-19 school, could have the most written about it, but I don’t feel the need to. It is a school which charges large fees, has a significant marketing budget but not a very good recent past. The new headteacher, of approximately 2 years, had been a headteacher in a different state and was, in his words “disgusted” by the money spent on management facilities and things the students would never see. But you could see his disgust more in his actions. He didn’t just speak with passion about his plans and pride about the schools achievements, but “walked the talk” when speaking to students and with the things he had done (study/ life skills sessions for groups of students were going on that very day). He said that he had interviews for a Director of Learning and Teaching (which is co-incidentally, my role in my school) and wanted to know what he should be looking for, because he recognised his limitations. He had built a Senior Leadership Team he trusted, and delegated to appropriately but with expectation, and the students told us how the vision he had was making them proud, once again, of their school. St Pauls was a real eye-opener for leadership, and the effect of a good leader having vision, being student centred, and working very very hard.
I didn’t answer the questions I set out to, but I didn’t care, because the trip was a success with what I was bringing back. The conclusions are as follows:
1. At my school, and in Waltham Forest, we need to look deeply in our communities; the communities that we serve, at our core values. All the schools in Australia had this. They knew their core values. They were printed everywhere but they lived and breathed them, and as a result, they were values that dictated everything that happens in the school.
2. We need to do the same thing – looking at other school with fresh eyes, in our own schools in Waltham Forest. There is so much to learn that I wasn’t expecting.
There were other noticeable things that I think we can use at Rush Croft, in Waltham Forest, or in the UK:
House system at Lourdes Hill. The houses students are in is big, brash, publicised everywhere, and really used to develop a team ethos
Name badges: All staff had professional name badges. Not lanyards, but metal name tags and this made it easy to have conversations with those colleagues. Professional conversations. I have come to the conclusion that dress is important in schools in the UK, or rather that professional dress is important for staff, but the name badges were a small thing that I think can have a big impact.
Bags outside: Bags were not a problem in classrooms as students were expected to leave them outside the door. This meant nothing valuable was ever in them, plus they didn’t get in the way of learning
Unions: The Queensland Unions and the Education authority seemed to have a far more grown up relationship than in the UK. In particular the relationship between the unions and individual schools was mutually beneficial and something I think unions here should look at.
Exams: The exams system in the UK is flawed. Queensland is going to go the same way and shouldn’t. I’m not devoting space to this here because it won’t happen, but I wanted to mention it.
The largest impact of the journey on me personally has been in the rewriting of the Learning and Teaching policy at Rush Croft. I have established, with my colleagues, an expectation of consistency and purpose, and more importantly, am establishing that the policy should actually lead the practice, rather than be stuck in a folder somewhere.
It will come as no surprise to anyone reading this report that the work on values is planned. I don’t know how it will happen yet but we plan to revisit our core values, and to ensure that they reflect the values held by our students, our parents, our staff and our local community. We further wish to establish that this will lead everything in our Learning and Teaching policy. This has already been the subject of a number of discussions at our Senior Leadership Team and Middle Leader Forums. A logical next step will be that all our policies, procedures, and more importantly practice come from these shared values. My understanding of the need for vision to synthesise the core values of a community of thousands of people is developed keenly, most effectively by the illustration of the leadership of the Headteacher at St Paul’s, and I saw the type of headteacher I wish to become.
Finally, the unseen (and largely unwritten about here) conversations with colleagues every evening, on the travel bus, over meals, and walking to get coffee has had a far greater impact than it’s possible to measure, and it’s only when making a contribution at a meeting, talking to the young people at my school, or working with colleagues and students that I see something that has come from my trip to Queensland. I can’t measure that, because it’s often forgotten, but it has to be mentioned, and it has already led to a very significant increase in collaboration between myself and others in Waltham Forest schools, and the intention to formalise this further