Factors in school success: policy and practice

| September 29, 2014

Suzette Young, Principal Emeritus at Willoughby Girls High School, spoke at the Global Access Partners Annual Growth Summit on Education on 19 September 2014. She shares elements for school improvement and ponders how this could be applied on the policy front.

As a recently retired Principal, I’m now a free agent, so to speak, and not a member of any vested interest group. I’m here to speak today as a practitioner. A Principal unchained.

Some schools have a distinct advantage from the outset. Most of their students come to school ready to learn, and to some degree already imprinted with schooling paradigms.

Schools less well placed have different starting points. For some, many of their students may come to school less ready to learn, from disadvantaged backgrounds, and less hard wired for success in formal education.

As such, the academic success of any school needs to be considered in terms of the community from which the students are drawn. There are schools of all stripes, regardless of their starting points, which raise their heads above the canopy of their like-community schools to achieve ‘much better than predicted results’.

How do they do this? And what might help or hinder schools to acquire the focused momentum to raise their bar?

There’s no single panacea for school improvement. If there were, then it would be bottled like snake oil and distributed online. However, experience shows us that some common elements make up the mix.

First, a receptive, amenable environment that has a high degree of predictability.

Here: Staff turnover is low. School systems are efficient, unobtrusive and make minimum claims on scarce space and time. Management sees its primary role as clearing the decks for learning, not generating additional clutter. The intention is to create an environment where 90% of teacher energy is liberated to focus unequivocally on the priority of quality learning.

I’m not describing here an environment sedated by compliance, merely one in which all systems and efforts are aligned towards serving the main game.

Second, cutting-edge pedagogy is embedded in the teaching and learning cycle.

Here: An evidence-based model permeates the teaching practice across the school and goes hand-in-hand with deep subject knowledge and a thorough understanding of curriculum content. Such a model is The NSW Quality Teaching Framework, warmly embraced at Willoughby. Its great strength is in placing intellectual quality at the centre of learning. Training is primarily on-site, continuous, supported and articulated by the leadership team.

A receptive, amenable environment and cutting-edge pedagogy are symbiotic – like a line from an old pop song: you can’t have one without the other. At least if you want a happy ending.

Third, a 360 degree gatekeeper role.

Principals who say ‘yes’ to everything risk a congested domain that can lose collective focus. Some examples of simple gatekeeping might be:

– Making a clear distinction between high value programs and those that serve no essential purpose and

– Preserving on-class learning time by rationalising teacher-student discontinuities. For example concentrating school excursions into a smaller number of days to minimise disruption across the board, and organising (as far as practicable) for teacher training to be delivered on-site or out-of-hours.

And principal time on task also needs to be guarded. In relation to my own case, I was fortunate to choose my school education directors well – they had the judgement to see that my school was travelling well and largely left me to my own devices.

Fourth, appropriate selection of teachers who, in particular

are either quick to acculturate to the school’s context or prepared appropriately in their pre-service training. The University of Western Sydney Classmates program in which student-teachers were embedded in a select number of disadvantaged schools is an excellent model of pre-service training.

Successful teachers exercise individual intelligence as well as a collective understanding of what is needed in their particular school to generate whole school improvement.

Last, the Principal is well authorised in

firstly, the selection of staff. If I had to choose one factor that makes a significant difference to a school’s climate and subsequent performance it would be the school’s ability to select staff, especially key staff who demonstrate capacity to alter the dynamic of the school for the better. I’ve seen faculties in disrepair become shining beacons; languishing or dysfunctional schools that become powerhouses of exemplary practice due in large part to the talent and drive of pivotal individuals hand-picked by local selection.

Principals also need to be able to exercise meaningful authority in key areas such as deploying finances and setting the school agenda, without being hamstrung by excessive layers of administration or system priorities that don’t match their school needs.

Drawing from the above, some questions to ponder on the broader policy front.

First, concerning Leadership and System Structures

How might increased principal authority (especially in government schools) enable schools to select and assemble effective teams focused on lifting academic attainments?

How might policy makers ensure that any proposed large scale changes are supported by evidence of increased student outcomes?

Second, concerning Curriculum and Pedagogy

What is the likelihood of the new Australian curriculum playing a key role in lifting performance across all states and territories, giventhat some states, such as NSW, have augmented the Australian curriculum with features from their own syllabusesand that the assignment of unallocated curriculum time for core subjects and options will vary across states, systems and schools?

In relation to pedagogy, what internal and external measures might reliably embed high quality, explicit pedagogy in the teaching and learning cycle for all teachers?

Third, teacher training

What changes to pre-service design and field preparation might result in a more targeted fit and reduced attrition rates in early teacher service?

Currently, much in-service training occurs as one-off, in-hours provision, with consequent loss of teacher continuity and any accrued value to the school.  What alternative on-site training arrangements might resolve this paradox?

And to finish a word about excellence and equity and gene pools.

Decades of accumulated international data from Europe to sub-Saharan Africa has shown that learning attainments in disadvantaged environments remain intractably low despite substantially increased funding. Equally, additional funding to more privileged environments does not appear from recent OECD figures to necessarily translate into higher student attainments.

In both cases, what conditions should be attached to federal funding (Gonski and recurrent) to ensure that it is applied directly towards generating better learning outcomes for students as measured by OECD and other measures?

Both the social imperatives of choice and ambitions of parents for their children have seen in the past decade or so a very significant balkanization of middle class schooling, with some seeking advantage in privateschools, state selective schools or alternatively, those comprehensives that are seen to be de facto versions of the independents and the selectives. The net result of this shift has been a much greater concentration of the national intelligence pool in fewer silos, the results of which are mirrored in an overall decline in OECD figures and a widening gap between the top and the bottom.

What are the likely long term consequences of this concentration of intelligence in fewer privileged silos, both in terms of intellectual performance and sectarian division in our social construction?

Suzette Young

Suzette Young is Principal Emeritus at Willoughby Girls High School. Under Suzette’s leadership Willoughby Girls High School has enjoyed a strong focus on academic learning, culminating in the school being placed first among NSW state comprehensive high schools on the basis of top end HSC results in 2007, 2008 and 2012, and in the last year, first among all NSW high schools, state and private, in advanced English. The school was awarded in 2009 the Director-General’s Award for Leading Girls Education in Achieving Academic Excellence. In 2012 The Sydney Morning Herald, The Daily Telegraph, The North Shore Times and Radio 2GB recognised Suzette’s leadership role in the school’s consistently excellent performance. With 38 years in education, Suzette has served as principal, deputy principal-leading teacher, head teacher and teacher in the northern, western and south western regions of Sydney, in single sex and co-educational schools, with advantaged, disadvantaged and culturally diverse communities. She has represented NSW on tours of China, Korea and Taiwan promoting public education to the international market. Suzette’s career includes extensive periods as Member of the NSW Board of Studies, Deputy President of the NSW Secondary Principals Council, Supervisor of HSC English Marking, President of the NSW English Teachers Association and Lecturer in Teacher Education at Macquarie University where she prepared English and ESL teachers for both the public and private sectors and taught Linguistics to undergraduate students. She holds a BA and MA from the University of Sydney.