Australia doesn’t have “high stakes” tests until Year 12 (the equivalent of our Year 13). This means that young Australians have Key stages 3 & 4 to develop interests and skills beyond the constraints of formal assessment.
The heavily over-subscribed Frankston High (130 teachers and1650 students on roll)* in the suburban Mornington Peninsula is a fantastic school and they put on a show for us. I’m not suggesting that what we saw was superficial; this was a school proud of its curriculum and the leadership of its staff and students and this sang from the moment we were welcomed.
The expected vision and values were presented and from that point the students ran the day. There was a tangible whiff of, “Let’s show these Poms what we can do,” but this was delivered with courtesy and integrity. The culture of the school beamed from the leadership team and the personal attentions of the Principal; he knew his students and staff and praised them for their leadership at every turn. You can tell when such attentions are genuine and well-received.
We saw enthusiastic active learning in Science – a student explained the Doppler Effect through an anime cartoon – and an ex-student visited the school to explain how the Hands on Learning Programme had inspired him to run his own business despite his dyslexia.
The breadth of the options available to Years 7 – 10 was stunning. This elective curriculum captures the passions of staff and students and develops new skills and the softer skills required to be a successful learner. The popular Aviation programme may look like playing with toys (nothing wrong with play in the curriculum, by the way), but actually led to an understanding of aeronautics and flying lessons in a Cessna.
I was even convinced that Minecraft had a place on the curriculum. With three sons immersed in this virtual world I have had this discussiion at home (I can see them applying for their visas right now).
There were lots of extra-curricular opportunities for personal development through sport, music, leadership.
Another theme to this tour that I’m particularly keen to explore is the approach to E-learning. Frankston was the first Government school to introduce tablet teaching in Australia and they have moved on with ambition.
Staff were honest enough to acknowledge that this approach was in development and that the key to its success in the long term would be staff training and buy-in. But with talented developers and leadership I’m sure they’ll have every chance of shaping the culture at the school. I was able to share our Thinkspace team’s vision and I hope that Frankston will be interested in having the first Australian coding school run by students.
So, an amazing school; one that I would be happy to send my children to. But what can we take from here back to the UK? In addition to the inevitable reflections on the importance of strong leadership from the Principal, inculcating a sense of team and leadership throughout the school, there are some structural considerations.
To what extent do Australian curriculum freedoms contribute to a higher ranking in the International Benchmarks? In addition:
There are no League tables in Australia;
There is no Ofsted equivalent;
The concept of levels of progress is alien;
Principals don’t face the same levels of vulnerability as Heads in the UK from the Department of Education.
We get led back to some fundamental questions about the UK system. What is the purpose of an education? Are we developing economic units or providing a child with the commitment and skills to learn throughout their lives? Is the education system in the UK going to deliver improved outcomes by introducing increased stricture?
Worryingly for the Australians, the conservative Government is adopting some of the more recent policies from the UK. Australian Principals have complained about the new Appraisal measures but the system sounded very reasonable to us. Worse could be on the way.
As system leaders preparing to deliver our key messages back in the UK, is Melbourne awaiting another toxic cloud “On the Beach“?
* A perception we have to test in Sydney is the apparently high funding and pupil teacher ratios. A contributory factor to this may be not having to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on exam administration at Key stage 4