I’m now six weeks into my stay in Australia, and one of the things that strikes me about the schooling system here is that it’s perhaps even more polarised than back home in the UK. There is often a very visible difference between the independent schools (of which there are proportionately more than in the UK) and the state schools. And, somewhere in the middle, cash-wise, are the Catholic schools. I still haven’t worked out why these schools are a special case, and not other faith schools, but maybe someone will explain.
There is often resentment expressed by teachers who work in public schools and the argument, that every school should be as well-equipped as the richest, is, of course, irrefutable. But some parents will always want to exercise their right to pay extra to have their child educated privately, so the challenge is about how private and public schools work together to bring much-needed innovation to the school system. Their collaborative track record isn’t good.
In the past two weeks I’ve visited two of the best schools I’ve seen anywhere: MLC and Northern Beaches Christian School, both in Sydney. Neither of them are state schools, and both are exceptionally well-resourced. To many left-leaning liberals like myself the immediate response is to dismiss what’s going on there, on the basis that, with the same financial support, any state school could look like that. But that would be to miss the point. These are great schools because of the quality of ideas they possess, not the number of laptops.
At MLC I spoke to the new principal, Denice Scala, who is passionate about the need to re-make a school with a long tradition, fit for the 21st century. The students had just finished the ‘Enlightenment’ project on how to radically re-design learning, and learning spaces, to make learning more engaging, student-led adpative and informal. The walls were covered in principles, passions and purposes – now Denice has to find a way to make it happen, and I’m sure she will.
At Northern Beaches Christian School, I met with principal Stephen Harris, and his senior staff. Stephen is a not just a visionary leader, he’s a great entrepreneur, too. Inheriting a school which had suffered falling enrolments for a long time, there was a finiancial imperative to turn the school around. What I saw was a true learning commons in action. I saw 180 students working in a single large space – more Googleplex, than classroom – with 6 teachers facilitating their project work. No desks, some comfortable furniture, but most kids were working on the floor. It was like seeing a traditional class of kids plugged in to the mains – the place was buzzing with energy. As Larry Rosenstock says, ‘it’s often what you take away from conventional schooling, not add to it, that makes the difference’, and here was vivd proof. Teachers no longer have desks,or narrow subject-specific responsibilities, rooms no longer have walls, kids no longer have limited options.
Perhaps the best compliment I can pay to the learning environment is to say that I couldn’t tell when kids were ‘in class’, or when they were socialising at lunchtime – the same buzz was present, the same ‘right to roam’ was evident, and the same informality held sway. Charlie Leadbeater visited the school recently, describing ‘like Cramlington on speed’, and I can’t do better than that. From facing possible closure, NBCS now has a two-year waiting list.
It would take several posts to detail the impressive innovations being implemented at NBCS, mostly under the umbrella of SCIL (the Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning). Stephen believes they have a responsibility to seek out the best learning practices in the world and share them with anyone interested – and this brings me back to my opening point.
We have great innovation in state schools in England, and I’ve seen highly innovative state schools in Australia too. We also have good ideas happening in independent schools, like Wellington College. The main difference however is that every time Anthony Seldon offers to share what works for his school with the state sector, he gets, at best, a ‘no thanks, that won’t work here, we don’t have your money’ response.
I sense some of the same in Australia. But great ideas don’t cost anything, and our kids schooling is too important to let class warfare ideologies get in the way, don’t you think?