Around 18 months ago, Queenwood established a relationship with Macleay Vocational College in Kempsey. There is much to say about this remarkable school. It is an independent school designed for teenagers who have fallen out of education altogether and offering VET and HSC pathways to students in Years 9-12. The College is not exclusively for Indigenous students, but as it serves the needs of the most marginalised and disadvantaged students its intake is around 90% Indigenous. When I first visited MVC last year, it was an eye-opener. The College itself is a beautiful place, and mostly feels very familiar. It’s a school. But as I spent time with the students and learnt more about their stories I was, I confess, shocked to understand the extremity of the students’ personal circumstances, and to realise that this was occurring not in a remote outback settlement but in a large coastal community a few hours away with strong regional infrastructure. It was a salutary reminder of the reality behind the headlines about disadvantage and dysfunction in Indigenous communities – all the more so because it is so close to home.
For the girls at our two schools the difference in life experience is stark. The students at MVC are pursuing their studies against challenges such as poverty, transience and homelessness; significant health issues including complex mental health and addictive behaviours; inconsistent or absent parenting and family violence; incidents with police and criminal justice; barriers to accessing basic services and so on. MVC is a safe and stable haven for these young people, and their pride in and attachment to their school is palpable. You can see it immediately as you walk through the gate – their students keep the grounds and environs immaculate.
The College offers the widest possible range of assistance to its students. In addition to providing pathways to vocational education and university, it assists students in accessing housing and social services, health services, support programs for dealing with addiction and family violence, dealings with criminal justice, and healthy living programs. Sometimes it’s as simple as providing food for kids who are not fed at home; sometimes it’s providing micro-credit so teenagers learn to manage money and live independently. By supporting every area of a student’s life they maximise the chance of success, and the effectiveness of this model is clear. MVC has achieved remarkable success over recent years: enrolments have increased by 50% and attendance has dramatically improved; in the last four years 31 students have finished the HSC as the first in their family to do so; three of these have been teenage mothers, all of whom either continue to be involved at College providing positive role modelling or are pursuing further study or traineeships.
There is one aspect of MVC which is of particular interest to us, and that is their work with teenage mothers and their babies within their Ginda Barri program. These young mothers are usually on their own, without family assistance, and can be as young as 13 years old. Over time MVC has developed a pathway for these young mothers to continue their progress towards VET and HSC qualifications and learn parenting skills to give their babies the start in life they haven’t had themselves. Most school programs addressing teenage pregnancy are aimed at girls who fall pregnant while they are at school, and aim to keep them there. At MVC, however, the majority of young mothers were not at school before falling pregnant, so an unplanned pregnancy is not the reason they fall out of education. Instead, it is a reason to come back into it, and they seek entry to MVC because they see it as a safe place for them and their baby, a place where they will get the education and skills they need to manage their lives. Ginda Barri is an unusual and inspiring model which not only transforms the lives of the mothers but also secures the future of the next generation. Many of the MVC students are the second or third generation who have grown up without consistent parenting or schooling, but Ginda Barri is breaking the cycle as it strengthens the next generation of mothers and cares for their babies.
In developing the relationship with MVC, our first priority is to create genuine opportunities for our students to connect. This has to be carefully managed but small groups of our students have already visited in both directions, and on both sides the girls have described it as ‘life-changing’. We are looking to grow this relationship over time, and it promises to be hugely enriching for Queenwood girls who will have the opportunity to connect with and learn from girls with a totally different start in life. We hope to enrich the MVC girls’ understanding in turn. For now, however, we have an immediate objective in mind.
The Ginda Barri program has been so successful that it now needs its own space. The babies and toddlers need their own playground away from the teenage students. They need proper areas for the babies to play and sleep, adjacent classrooms for their mothers to learn, and space for health professionals to visit and care for mother and baby. When I first discussed this need with the Principal of MVC, I felt it was an ideal project for Queenwood to support in the longer term. In the meantime, the number of teenage mothers seeking help from Ginda Barri has increased further and the need has become even more urgent. A few months ago, Newington College generously donated some second-hand demountable classrooms to MVC which brought the goal of a dedicated Early Childhood Centre at College much closer. The buildings are now in place, but they need to be fitted out: painting, carpeting, stairs, ramps, fire extinguishers, electrical, plumbing, sewage, fencing and railings, children’s furniture and so on. We now have the inspiring possibility of making the Early Childhood Centre a reality for Term 1 2017 and to make this happen we are launching the Queenwood Girls for Girls campaign.
The Girls for Girls campaign recognises that the Queenwood community is in a position to support young and vulnerable mothers to access education and provide the parenting which will secure the future of the next generation of Indigenous children. Through this campaign we aim to raise $100 000 to fit out the classrooms for the Ginda Barri program. More details and FAQ are available here.
Some Queenwood families who have learnt about MVC in the last few weeks have already committed significant financial support to the project, and I am delighted to say that their generosity has secured over $66 000 for the campaign. The challenge I am now putting to the broader Queenwood community is to raise the remaining $34 000 by Christmas. It is an ambitious goal, but a donation of just $40 for each girl at Queenwood would more than cover it. We are hugely encouraged by the interest from our girls who heard about the campaign in Assembly on Wednesday, and by the early and generous support we have already received.
So what’s next?
Girls for Girls Hour
We want to help, but it is important that we do so from a position of understanding and engagement with the underlying issues. The most powerful thing we can do for our girls is help them do this. We are therefore asking every Queenwood family to set aside one hour to engage with these issues. At 8:30pm on Wednesday, 30 November we ask you to sit down with your daughters (if they are old enough) to watch the second episode of the SBS documentary First Contact presented by Ray Martin. This episode will deal with the Stolen Generation, from which many of the students at MVC are descended. Through this Girls for Girls hour, we ask for your help in ensuring that our girls engage with the world and grapple to form their own perspective on important moral and social issues. We want them to watch the program thoughtfully and critically, and to have the opportunity to discuss and debate it with you afterwards. You might then wish to view a 5-minute SBS clip about MVC and the early incarnation of Ginda Barri from a few years ago, which will put their work into context. (We will send a link closer to the time.)
There are some upcoming fundraising events for the girls, and they will be informed of these separately. We will not, however, reach our goal through these activities alone. We will be writing to you after the Girls for Girls Hour to seek your help, and ask you to consider supporting this important campaign. Every contribution will count, but whether or not you choose to support Girls for Girls financially the time you spend helping your daughters understand the issues and establish their own moral compass will be a significant contribution. More information about MVC and the Girls for Girls campaign can be found here and Ms Paola Tamberlin, Indigenous Projects Coordinator (email@example.com), and I are happy to field further enquiries.
At this time of year there are many demands on our time and attention, and you would be forgiven for feeling that this is an untimely request. I have, however, been reminding myself that my own children will be starting the new school year in January with every support in place, and every opportunity of making something of their lives. The young mothers at MVC are children themselves and they and their babies have been dealt very different cards. I hope that we at Queenwood, through the Girls for Girls campaign, will be able to make the new school year a time of great hope and encouragement for all of them.
Queenwood first offered the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program in 2001 and since that time our girls have both enjoyed it and achieved excellent results. Some parents are strongly attracted by it, and others are either more sceptical or feel that they need to know more.
Some of the features which make the IB distinctive elsewhere are not as significant in our context. The compulsory CAS program (creativity, activity, service) recognises the importance of involvement in a wide range of activities. Successful completion can involve significant juggling, but Queenwood girls are generally very active so that many only have to adapt their activities slightly and ensure that it is logged. In this respect, then, the experience of our HSC and IB girls is often very similar. The Extended Essay is a genuine point of difference, as it requires students to define a question and write a 4000-word answer. The length and, particularly, the process of defining the question are demands typically made in the first or second year of university, and when the time comes IB graduates often feel very at home with the process. Extension English or History students will do something similar in the HSC, but this is only a minority of students. Similarly, the Theory of Knowledge course (beginners epistemology) is unique to the IB (although our weekly Philosophy Club is open to all!). The IB’s insistence on a generalist education (everyone must do some level of Maths, English, Science, Language and Humanities) is perfect for some but limiting for those who have intense interest in a particular area. Those who wish, say, to study three languages or three sciences cannot do so within the IB.
There is a hidden benefit to offering dual pathways at Queenwood, in that the process of teaching a different curriculum can make for better teaching in all areas. For myself, I know I became a better teacher and a better mathematician when I had to teach GCSEs, IGCSEs, Pre-U and A-Level in the UK. Even where the content was totally familiar, I had to approach the material through a different lens, so that my own understanding deepened and my teaching branched out in unexpected ways. Offering both IB and HSC embeds different perspectives and approaches into our teaching in a way that enriches all girls, regardless of their level or pathway.
Let me be clear: I am no zealot for the IB. It has its strengths and weaknesses, and while open to all it is not necessarily the best choice for all. We are, however, pleased to have seen significant growth in the uptake of the IB (next year it will take in around one-third of Years 11 and 12) and with that there is an increasing need for parents to understand both the Diploma itself and the interpretation of results.
In the IB Diploma, a student is awarded a mark out of 7 for each of six subjects, and three additional points can be earned through satisfactory completion of Theory of Knowledge, CAS and the Extended Essay – for a total of 45. Subjects are offered at Standard Level or Higher Level (SL or HL), and at least three subjects must be taken at Higher Level. So students must undertake a program of some difficulty, but it should be noted that a 7 in Maths Studies SL is treated the same as a 7 in Further Maths HL, despite a great difference in mathematical complexity. The Diploma is, of course, a rigorous preparation for tertiary studies and is recognised as such, but like any examination its grades and marking processes have to be intelligently understood.
The HSC has similar quirks. A mark above 90 in the HSC is recorded as a Band 6 (ie top band) result, regardless of the difficulty of the subject. When newspapers publish their so-called league tables they base their rankings on Band 6 results regardless of subject, and hence a mark of 91 is counted in the same way whether it is gained in HSC Brain Surgery or HSC Pooh-Sticks. A school which encouraged students to move from challenging courses into easier ones would thereby increase its ranking in the newspaper league tables. Fortunately, Queenwood’s academic record is strong enough that there is little temptation for us to sacrifice the girls’ long-term interests by such manoeuvres but the increasing pressure on schools to justify their existence on the basis of examination results can only make this more probable in schools of all kinds.
Coming back to the newspaper league tables, I regularly remind our parents of their flaws, their misuse and the pernicious misunderstandings surrounding them. They don’t tell us what most people think they tell us, and hence I don’t know quite what to say when we are congratulated on our ‘success’ in achieving a certain rank. It seems ungracious to launch into a self-righteous explanation along the lines of ‘you are right but for the wrong reasons’!
The difficulty will become even more acute in December 2017 when the first of our large IB cohorts will graduate. We are delighted that a large proportion of the girls are choosing to do such a rigorous course, and we are confident that this will be good for their intellectual development and for university entrance, since the high standards of the IB are reflected in strong ATARs. Unfortunately, these girls’ excellent performances and demonstrably high examination outcomes will be entirely excluded from the league tables which are calculated only from the HSC results, so Queenwood is certain to plummet down the rankings next year. The easy route would be to prioritise PR and spin, and to discourage the IB – but the girls come first. I will confess, however, that I dream of a small miracle, when the newspapers would admit that the tables are misleading – even damaging – and would instead provide intelligent and nuanced reporting about educational standards.
Ms Elizabeth Stone
Last week a prospective parent asked me ‘what is Queenwood’s approach to prizes’? It was an unusual question from a parent, and a particularly acute one. Like most schools we have many ways of providing public recognition (awards, presentations, pockets, trophies, certificates, announcements etc). But, as Mrs Toohey is also discussing in this week’s newsletter, we do need to be judicious in how, and how much, we do it.
A healthy community should be able to celebrate successes warmly and wholeheartedly. There would be something very wrong if doing well was seen as anything but a Very Good Thing. In a school, some children receive prizes or public recognition far more often than others, and we should be very happy for them – without for a second thinking that they are more valued or important as a person because of it.
The complicated part is: how much award-giving is too much? Formal, public recognition can be powerful, and can sometimes stimulate real improvement. If used well, this can spark a virtuous circle through which a girl experiences the flush of reward, commits herself further, is pleased with her own improvement and ultimately becomes motivated for the long term by the intrinsic rewards of learning and progress. The pitfalls, however, are many:
- Girls can become reliant on recognition by others, judging themselves a failure and becoming demotivated the minute it stops.
- Girls can focus on how well everyone else is doing, and lose the satisfaction that comes from their own progress.
- Girls can start ‘trophy-hunting’ – seeking out that which offers badges and certificates, and sacrificing the fulfilment that comes from doing things that are of real interest and value to them.
- Girls can assume that only those activities and people which receive recognition and reward are seen as important, and feel overlooked and devalued as a result.
In each of these cases, there is a quick fix: give that girl a reward – recognise her for something, anything. Young people, however, are not stupid and quickly see through praise and rewards that are offered lavishly. Kindergarten girls typically love to receive anything with a handshake and a round of applause (and I do love handing them out!) but by Year 7 the girls have usually seen through the ruse of participation certificates for all, and can even find them demeaning. As a girl once said to me, ruefully: ‘If everyone is special, that means no-one is special.’ (I think she was quoting from The Incredibles.)
In most schools, there is a constant stream of requests to introduce new forms of award and recognition. The requests are usually very reasonable and always well intentioned. The cumulative effect, however, is pernicious. I recall one school where, in the effort to make more students feel recognised and valued, the number of prefects had increased to nearly 50% of Year 12. The result was quite the opposite: those who missed out perceived it as a damning judgment. ‘I’m not even in the top half of the year!’ I have never seen a school with more tears and distress when the positions were announced. If the school had had fewer prefects it would have caused much less damage: it is easier to accept that you are not in the top 10%, and you are much less likely to start drawing unhelpful comparisons to try to decipher why you missed out. It was a wonderful demonstration of why anyone who really cares for the character and wellbeing of young people must have the courage to look like a Scrooge, and say no to apparently harmless requests for more prizes and positions.
So what is our approach? We do use awards, and we regularly celebrate success together – in our assemblies and newsletters and at gatherings like Speech Night. We expect our girls to be generous in encouraging and applauding each other. We reject, however, attempts to equate public recognition with value, or formal rewards with success. We believe that girls are more than their grades, that leaders are recognised by their actions and not by their badges, and that most of the time virtue is its own reward.
A common catchphrase in education is ‘we teach children how to think, not what to think’ – and a resounding ‘Amen’ to that. However, that catchphrase is often paired with ‘we teach skills, not content’, often followed with something along the lines that having a mobile phone and Google or Wikipedia in your pocket means there’s no point presenting information to students. Instead, the argument goes, focus on skills – an argument which often segues into a discussion of so-called 21st century skills.
It’s not always clear what they are but they commonly include attributes such as creativity, communication, collaboration, critical thinking, information literacy, initiative, flexibility and so on. As valuable as these skills are, I don’t accept that they have suddenly acquired new or greater importance. Consider the classic statement of the purpose of education from William Cory Johnson:
At school you are engaged not so much in acquiring knowledge as in making mental efforts under criticism. A certain amount of knowledge you can indeed with average faculties acquire so as to retain; nor need you regret the hours you spent on much that is forgotten, for the shadow of lost knowledge at least protects you from many illusions. But you go to a great school not so much for knowledge as for arts and habits; for the habit of attention, for the art of expression, for the art of assuming at a moment’s notice a new intellectual position, for the art of entering quickly into another person’s thoughts, for the habit of submitting to censure and refutation, for the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms, for the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy, for the art of working out what is possible in a given time, for taste, for discrimination, for mental courage, and for mental soberness.
An elegant statement, but even in the Victorian era this was hardly revolutionary. It was a statement of the classical values of liberal education, including all those attributes (critical thinking, rigorous analysis, information literacy, communication, flexibility, initiative) which we now like to think are ‘21st century skills’.
At Queenwood, our focus certainly is on teaching girls howto think – but they have to have something to think about. It is important that they understand the arc of history, the great intellectual and artistic movements, the major political ideologies and so on, and here their families have an important role to play.
Prospective parents often ask me how we ensure that girls at Queenwood develop a sense of perspective on the world, an understanding that in a global context the blessings of rich education and prosperous stability are the exception rather than the rule, and a desire to make their own contribution to the world. This is important to us as a school, and important to our families. We do this by ensuring that the girls build an understanding of history and the world around them through the curriculum. We do this as the girls engage in social justice campaigns, travel for exchanges, make contact with a diverse range of people and communities. We create space for the discussion of big ideas, and we also create an expectation that the girls will be interested in them. And they are. Humans are curious, and young people especially so.
Our efforts are only part of the story, though. Girls from families that discuss what’s going on in the world, that take time to explore their own community, that are curious about other people’s lives and issues, have a noticeably deeper and more nuanced understanding of the world. With an Australian election, an American election, a Brexit campaign, unprecedented refugee issues, the reshaping of both Europe and the Middle East, the rise of Asia – there is so much to take interest in, and so much to learn. This is a wonderful time to encourage vigorous discussion and wide reading about world affairs, and I hope the girls will have many opportunities to do this not only at school but also at home.
Ms Elizabeth Stone
When I was at school in Sydney, my friends and I thought long and hard about the courses we wanted to do and where we might do them, but it was rare for us to think beyond the universities in Sydney, at least for undergraduate study. Our girls’ experience is very different.
The majority do, of course, go to Australian universities, but there is now strong interest in universities across the country, and almost as many of our girls from the Class of 2015 had offers from Melbourne (15) as from Sydney (19). Similarly, ANU was the fourth most popular destination, after Sydney, Melbourne and UTS. Meanwhile universities are working harder than ever on recruiting top students, and the range of courses and opportunities on offer is far broader. Living on campus in a college is a popular choice for the intellectual environment, the strong sense of community and the rich programs on offer, and we provide expert advice to girls applying for college places and scholarships. The range of scholarships available is broad, from elite sporting scholarships through to the most prestigious academic scholarships such as Melbourne’s Vice-Chancellor’s or ANU’s Tuckwell Scholarships – which were amongst those offered to Queenwood girls last year.
We have always emphasised that girls should have high academic ambition within a balanced program, and the combination of breadth and excellence serves them well in these applications – particularly for those applying to the US, where high achievement in areas such as sport and drama helps strong academic candidates stand out. A number of Queenwood girls in recent years have won valuable scholarships to universities such as Harvard and NYU through this combination. (The outstanding wins for Queenwood crews at Head of the River last week have again sparked interest from US colleges.) We are proud of the expertise we can offer to the girls applying to all these universities, and I am often asked about the relative merits of the IB and HSC when pursuing study outside Australia. My answer is always that we find the IB to be a particularly good preparation for undergraduate study and it is well known and well respected world-wide. However, the HSC is also a highly regarded credential and girls should feel confident that they can pursue international study whichever pathway they take. A quick look at last year’s cohort confirms this: the girls received offers from universities including Cambridge, Imperial College London, Kings College London, London School of Economics, University College London, St Andrew’s, San Francisco and Washington.
Strength and breadth are also indicated when looking at the girls’ areas of study from year to year. We offer a liberal education, in which languages and the arts are valued as highly as the humanities and sciences. This means girls have the opportunity to explore and develop their talents, and the pattern of study changes from year to year according to their interests: sometimes there is a high proportion in Arts and Languages, and sometimes in Science and Engineering, Medical and Health Sciences or Media and Communications. In 2015, for instance, the most popular fields were (in order) Business (eg Commerce, Economics, Business), Science and Engineering, Media & Communications and Law – but this is quite different from the previous two years. This is as it should be: we take the girls as they are and try to bring out their strengths rather than directing them toward any particular discipline.
Whether or not the girls study overseas or at home, the key is to find them a good fit for both course and university. I am particularly grateful to our Careers Advisor, Mrs Virginia Pelosi, who does a remarkable job in educating the girls about the options and supporting them in pursuing their choices. From the 2015 cohort, over 70% of students gained entry to their first choice of course, and 87% got either their first or second choice. Ultimately this is what all the fuss in Year 12 is about. The IB and HSC are not important in themselves. They are important because of the intellectual and personal growth that they stimulate in the girls as they work towards it, and because of the choices that are opened to them on completion.
Ms Elizabeth Stone
A wise friend of mine remarked recently that he thought the purpose of education was to prepare us for friendship. I’ve been mulling over this and, as I explained to the Senior girls in Assembly today, I think it’s a pretty good way to describe our purpose.
Friendship, in the broadest sense, encompasses our aspirations for our girls throughout their lives. An attitude of friendship will spur them to understand other people: their lives, their cultures, their experiences and their worldview. It will motivate them to apply their gifts, personal and material, in service of others. It will dispose them to make respectful and meaningful connections with people in their own circles and from different places and backgrounds. And friendship in the more personal sense brings us great, lasting joy and is at the heart of our most intimate relationships.
How, then, does a school prepare its students for friendship? It starts with creating an environment conducive to friendship. I talked to the girls about the role of manners and customs in our daily lives. At bottom, the things we categorise as ‘manners’ or ‘etiquette’ are about caring for others, and high standards of courtesy – however superficial the gestures may seem at times – help to ingrain an attitude of consideration for others. So a school which prizes and insists upon courtesy and respect creates the setting for true friendships to form.
Dr Seele emphasised in assembly the importance of kindness, of being inclusive and reaching out to others. The girls know this, of course, although each of us needs encouragement to sustain this when it involves people that we don’t know or don’t warm to or who haven’t always been kind to us in the past. But in addition to making outward gestures, there is another aspect of kindness that doesn’t often get a mention: self-restraint. There are so many temptations to push back or lash out, and excuses – stress, anger, frustration, tiredness – are easy to find. Nevertheless, there is no way around it: healthy friendships require a level of self-restraint that can be taxing, and the only way to build the self-discipline required is to keep working at it.
Cultural influences can be very powerful, so it is important that we build a culture of kindness at Queenwood. By being consistent in the manners, habits and standards that we expect from each other, we create a culture which strengthens each individual to be the person that they know they want to be. We hope that a culture of respect and kindness will thus seep into each girl’s DNA and equip her to build strong and meaningful friendships for life.
Ms Elizabeth Stone
Last term I wrote in our newsletter about the impact of the Assembly presentation given by two Junior School teachers (Mrs van Senden and Ms Patterson) about Cambodia. I described then how their experiences challenged our assumptions about what was ‘normal’ school life. We are tempted to assume that a normal school is one in which everyone is entitled to five full days of learning each week; in which well functioning toilets are automatically available; in which students are encouraged to discuss ideas and share their opinions; and in which teachers believe that the foundation of effective teaching is he quality of their relationship with each student. By the time they finished talking, it was clear that a school like that – a school like ours – is far from ‘normal’ in a global context.
For all the newspaper columns of criticism, the educational opportunities across Australia are outstanding – and at Queenwood all the more so. It is essential that our girls understand this, and that we all come to appreciate our great good fortune at being in the right place at the right time. Perhaps, in a perfect world, we might have the luxury of taking it all for granted – but not in this world. So we work very hard to help our girls develop a broad perspective on the world, because that perspective will provide the inspiration and motivation for them to make their own contribution.
We do this in many ways. Mrs Toohey gave me a great illustration earlier this week: in 2006 she herself went to Cambodia to train up student teachers. On her return, she did a unit of work with her Year 6 class which examined Cambodia’s history and culture, and she says her teaching of that unit was transformed by the intensity of her personal experience there, and the girls engaged much more deeply. Four years later, the majority of her Year 6 class committed to the trip to Cambodia. The girls said they had been waiting for years for the opportunity to see it for themselves, and that early Cambodia-Queenwood connection was driving individual engagement years later.
Travel, exchanges, languages, the IB, social justice campaigns – there are many ways to engage with the world, and the key element is curiosity. Our assumption in all we do at Queenwood is that the world is an interesting place, and that our girls are going to be interested in it. This sounds obvious, but too often we back away from presenting challenging material for fear that it is too hard, too abstract, too complex or too grown-up for a young audience. In my view this is fundamentally mistaken, even disrespectful, towards young people, and that view was certainly confirmed a few days ago when a group of girls told me that of all the assemblies we had done this year, the most interesting was the one in which we examined the origins, beliefs and future of Islamic State. It does the girls great credit that they respond in this way, as it was a challenging talk – going back to the Sunni-Shia split in the 7th century and the Golden Age of Islam in the early Caliphate, through 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Al-Qaeda and up to the present day. It does them credit, but it is no surprise. Young people are curious.
We are tapping into that curiosity in November with a Big Ideas lunchtime series. Each Tuesday for the next four weeks we are inviting interested girls from Years 7-12 to discuss big ideas relating to Australia and its place in the world. The basic question is: how does Australia build its power in international politics, and what has to change now that the power balance of the last 70 years is breaking down? The discussions will be based on the 2015 Boyer Lectures, and will be led by Mr Muir, Miss Saville, Carina Stone (Head Prefect, 2016), Dr Seele and myself. We are encouraging the girls prior to each session to listen to one of the four Boyer Lectures delivered by Dr Michael Fullilove, Executive Director of the Lowy Institute. They are fascinating talks, and if you haven’t already heard them, you may also wish to listen to them so as to extend the debate with your children at home. (You can find them here: [ http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/boyerlectures/])
There is a certain satisfaction, too, in noting a Queenwood connection: one of the previous speakers in this influential series was Old Girl Shirley Hazzard (in 1984 – Coming of Age in Australia).
Ms Elizabeth Stone
One of the perennial frustrations for teachers is the extent to which the teaching that we want to do is disrupted by the demands of bureaucracy. Some of it, I concede, performs a valuable function, but much of it does not. In Australia and many other countries, there is an increasing demand for ‘accountability’ and ‘transparency’ – and arguing against this is like arguing against democracy or freedom. There is, however, a real risk when the tools adopted in the name of accountability and transparency are seriously flawed.
Examples abound. The government insists on accountability and transparency but will not let schools have access to the ATARs of their own students. The only way any school can compile any data on this is by asking each individual student to tell us what they got. That’s a lot of telephone calls in the week before Christmas! Schools are given their students’ HSC results in the form of marks and Bands, but these results are not effective for comparisons between schools because they do not take into account the relative difficulty of an exceedingly wide range of subjects. Food Technology is a wonderful course, but it is not as academically taxing as Extension Classical Greek; nevertheless, in something like the SMH ‘league table’, they are weighted exactly the same. The ATAR is far from perfect but it does attempt to adjust for these differences in course content and candidature – and yet this is the data which is not made available. Comparisons based on HSC performance are also of limited utility because they exclude the performance of IB students, and this can also skew the data strongly.
NAPLAN is also deeply flawed. It was introduced as a test of basic skills in literacy and numeracy. Predictably, from the start the data was used for a very different purpose, such as comparing schools. Using it for this purpose ignored the design of the test, which could only really support a comparison of how well different schools were reaching the minimum standard. In some contexts, this is vitally important. In other contexts, including ours, the focus of teachers and parents should not be on the minimum, but on how well we are developing children beyond the minimum – something which the test was not designed to show. Over time the declared purpose of NAPLAN has subtly changed, with frequent suggestions now that it is a ‘tool for school improvement’ and distinct changes to its content. Even this is deeply flawed. The Year 3 Maths NAPLAN test may, for instance, include material that according to the Australian Curriculum is not due to be taught until Year 4. So a teacher who is teaching the curriculum very well according to the prescribed schedule will have students who are simply unable to tackle the question. She will see her students judged unfavourably in comparisons and tables based on NAPLAN performance, even if she is teaching what she should exceptionally well. And all along teachers are exhorted not to ‘teach to the test’!
The triennial furore over PISA testing is yet another example. There are serious criticisms of the nature of the test and the validity of the rankings produced from these tests, but even if they are accepted as valid, they are only a very small part of the story. The style of education provided in the countries which reliably take out the top places in these rankings would be unlikely to appeal to most Australian parents. We want our girls to do well academically, but there is so much more to school and life than that. Watching Beauty and the Beast last night was a wonderful reminder of how we educate in other ways. The quality of the production and performances was outstanding – and the packed house greeted the performances with great enthusiasm. My congratulations go to the cast and crew and all the staff who brought this about, and particular congratulations must go to Mr Guy Sherborne, directing his last production (and his first musical!) at Queenwood before his retirement.
As I watched, though, I was reflecting on how much this production offered to each individual girl. Their backgrounds and talents and needs are all different but the achievement for each was substantial. Some girls had battled with horrific nerves, and then performed with assurance and flair. Others have been juggling workloads that would make grown adults crack, and have held it all together by sheer force of will. Some girls had to overcome injuries and health problems to get through the taxing rehearsal and performance schedule… Each story is different. They are the stories which explain Queenwood’s purpose, but none of them will ever appear on a test paper, in an exam grade, or on a league table.
Ms Elizabeth Stone
Probably the most frustrating part of being a Principal is that it pulls you away from the cheerful, prosaic, rollicking ordinariness of school life. There are plenty of moments of celebration shared with groups and crowds; and plenty of moments of emotional intensity shared with girls and families in intimate circumstances. It is a great privilege to share these. But there is far less ordinary relationship: the shared silliness, the scoldings, the simple quotidian rhythms which make teaching such a rewarding profession.
For this reason, I have had particular pleasure reverting to classroom teacher over the last few weeks. I have had a fabulous class of Year 7s who progressed from rigid wariness in the first lesson (the curse of being Principal!) to cheerful and often noisy unselfconsciousness two weeks later. A key challenge is to wean girls away from their tendencies to perfectionism, and to overcome the aversion to risk which undermines all learning. This is particularly damaging in Maths, because there are right-or-wrong answers which scare off the anxious, and because expanding mathematical knowledge – even more than most disciplines – relies on a rock-solid understanding of what came before. One shaky concept can consume all higher learning, like some sort of intellectual black hole.
So encouraging the girls to overcome both their fear of imperfection and their fear of exposure in front of the Principal was a challenge. Fortunately I was building on the confidence which their usual teacher had established over the past two terms, and the discussion quickly developed in profound and thought-provoking ways. One line of questioning started with the probability of dice, wound its way through the design of games which are fair or unfair to the players, explored Australia’s status as the world’s biggest gambling losers and touched on the constitutional structures behind this (ie state governments’ dependence on alcohol, tobacco and gambling revenues since they relinquished their power to levy income tax).
This may sound rather high-brow, but rest assured that the girls quickly brought the issue of problem gambling back down to earth, with eagerly offered stories of the 12-year-old’s version of problem gambling, ie the tantalising Claw Crane machines in shopping centres which hold out the false promise of a plush toy which can never, in fact, be secured by The Claw Descending From Above. We all agreed that we had been fooled into wasting good money on this – all except one girl who proudly boasted of an improbable run of success and the resulting stash of stuffed animals, thus bringing the edifice of probability theory crashing down on Thursday afternoon.
One often reads in educational literature of the importance of making students’ learning ‘relevant’. Conversations like this one with Year 7 are exciting: their eyes open; you can almost hear the sound of their young minds expanding; the world in all its complexities is coming into focus for them. When the connection with the world is genuine, and it arises naturally out of shared exploration, it is priceless. Generally, however, I am sceptical of the push to ‘make learning relevant’.
Quite apart from the fact that we can never predict what knowledge will eventually become useful, the idea that all learning should be relevant ignores the fact that human beings find enormous pleasure in things entirely disconnected from the real world. Many people do mathematics for pleasure, but it is always of the most abstract kind (Sudoku, Bridge, puzzles); not many people choose to calculate the horizontal displacement of a projectile over their Sunday morning coffee, despite its undoubted utility. Secondly, the search for ‘relevance’ too often results in highly contrived, time-consuming activities which don’t fool kids for a second (and don’t engage them for half of that). Thirdly, the insistence on ‘relevance’ seems to assume that learning is not intrinsically rewarding. This flies in the face of my experience both as a student and teacher.
There are, of course, great rewards in using knowledge to build something or solve a particular problem: one of the most wondrous and stimulating things about mathematics is that the same set of equations or techniques can be applied to explain both DNA and earthquakes; or planetary motion and road engineering. But throughout human history, we have delighted in learning for its own sake, we have appreciated beauty for its own sake, and we have sought understanding for its own sake. In other words, the great aim of a liberal education is to stimulate ‘a lifelong awakening to the complexity of the world’. So: relevance by all means – but not as the objective.
Ms Elizabeth Stone
Last night I attended an event at which the journalist and feminist, Anne Summers, led a conversation with the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick. As you would expect, the discussion raised a multitude of issues (and it was great to see some Queenwood girls there engaging with them), but one in particular was raised during the Q&A which made me want to jump out of my seat.
Q: I’m studying Year 11 Economics and it’s a male-dominated subject, and quite often the boys in my class or the male teachers make snide comments because I’m one of the only girls. Do you have any advice for me?
This was almost immediately followed by another young woman:
Q: I’m a teacher and I often try to pick my male students and colleagues up on disparaging language and attitudes about women. Unfortunately, I have trouble getting my senior colleagues to support me. Do you have any advice?
Of course, co-ed schools aren’t all like this. But one of the simplicities of life in a girls’ school is that we do not have to work on sending out the right messages about gender equality. Quite the reverse in fact: frequently, in a girls’ school, it is a matter of the less said the better. Too often, young people see straight through our earnest speeches about ‘Girls, too, can be engineers’ – and think ‘she doth protest too much’. Far more powerful is what is lived but left unsaid. I recall a senior judge telling me how delighted she was when her three-year-old grandson turned to her and said, ‘Grandma, can boys be judges too?’
Later in the evening, Alan Joyce, CEO of Qantas, and Kevin McCann, Chair of Macquarie Group, joined the panel. On the issue of occupational segregation (where professions largely occupied by women tend to be lower paid) and the consequential pay gap, Alan Joyce was emphasising the importance of encouraging women to aspire to careers in higher-paid sectors traditionally the preserve of men – in his case, pilots and engineers.
He’s right, and occupational segregation can be seen in schools too. For some reason, boys and girls tend to define themselves against each other, and despite the best efforts of their parents and teachers, in mixed company it is harder to persuade boys to do English or play the flute or persuade girls to study Extension 2 Maths or lift weights. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the only schoolgirl AFL team in the Sydney competition is from Queenwood: would the girls in a co-ed school be as likely to have the confidence to put on the shorts and play ‘the boys’ game’?
In girls’ schools, every leadership position is held by girls; every instrument is played by girls; every subject is taken by girls; every sport is played by girls – and it doesn’t even cross their minds that someone else might doubt their right to do so. This is precious. This is the only period in their lives when they will have the freedom of a single-sex environment, and it is doubly powerful that they experience this at the formative time of childhood and adolescence. Best of all, the time that we don’t have to spend combating snide remarks and denigrating attitudes can be devoted to getting the very best out of our girls.
Ms Elizabeth Stone