Phillip Heath AM, Head of Barker College in Sydney, speaks to Education Matters about creating a school culture based on community and gratitude, and discusses the importance of preparing students for life beyond the school gates.
How has Barker College transitioned from one of Sydney’s oldest boys schools to becoming co-educational?
Barker College will turn 130 in 2020, when girls join us in Year 7 for the first time. Girls were actually here on the first day in 1890 when the school opened but they didn’t make the transition to the Hornsby site when we moved.
Year 11 and 12 co-education began at Barker College in 1975. That was really successful, people really appreciated it and the numbers were strong. In 2000, we extended co-education to Year 10. Then in 2016, we made the decision to transition into full co-education.
This decision was based around two strands of research. Internally, this was around the views of the efficacy of what we had been doing for over 40 years of co-education in the Senior School; looking at if it worked and if it did, why? The second strand was a research program that looked at what the literature definitively says about what is better – single sex or co-education? On the first strand, the overwhelming evidence was that there was an extremely high level of satisfaction from past, present and prospective students and families in regards to co-education.
The research was based on hard data, it was not speculative. When we reviewed the literature, we found that some of the research findings from before the year 2000 said that girls did better in single sex schools; but that has changed in the past 18 years. Gender is not playing the same role as it used to in regards to learning outcomes.
On the basis of our findings, we were satisfied that the timing was right for Barker College to proceed to co-education.
We live in a world where your gender is so much less of a determinant of your contribution to society beyond the school gates and we need to respond to that.
What is Barker College’s philosophy and how does it guide you and your staff?
Barker College is a Christian school in the Anglican tradition. Purpose and mission flows from that. The long history of the school has been formed by that Christian purpose and identity, but it operates in the real world where many who don’t ascribe to that tradition still fit into the school.
We express that mission and purpose in such language that we want it to be inspiring to everybody in every purpose and every way.
We seek to inspire hope and have a global view of what hope looks like. That’s a lens through which we view all our purposes and all our decision making. Is it going to inspire every student, teacher and person that comes on site?
It is taking the idea of inspiring us to bring life into something literally. What is it that breathes into your soul and your mind? That’s what our classrooms should be like. It is unthinkable for a school to be dull or boring or a class to be something that you have to endure.
The school motto is Honor, non Honores. That means seek goodness not rewards, honour not honours, be worthwhile and contribute to the community at large, not just yourself, and do it without intention of rewards. Do what’s good for it’s own sake not what it will bring you. The process is more important than the victory. That’s a very significantly different organising principle. And that’s not new, the founder of Barker College set that in place.
I’ve been in schools where the motto doesn’t mean a lot, but at Barker College, this one does. It is known by the kids, by the alumni, and it is very powerful. I try to use that as an organising principle.
How does Barker College differ from other schools?
Most schools do things mostly the same, most of the time. All revert back to that because it’s safe. Differences often exude in a world where people are searching for safe. Differences often seem faintly suspicious.
The literature says about 80% of what all schools do is the same. Schools should search out the 20% of what makes them unique.
You’re told how much of the curriculum you need to teach and the timetable is already defined, so what is left is the culture and the culture is like an iceberg. There is the part you see and what is beneath it, what you say you are going to do and what you actually do when it’s not on show. That’s where your culture is. I like to think that is what makes us different, not unique, but different. It all comes down to culture, that deeply laden culture that tells me to be a member of this community. That’s where the 20% of differentiation lies.
What is the history of Barker College?
It was founded by an Anglican clergyman as a little parish school, in Kurrajong in 1890. He ran and owned the school. It was then relocated to this site in Hornsby.
It was intended to provide an educational program to matriculate to the University of Sydney in an Anglican Christian setting, and we haven’t deviated from that purpose.
The school was then purchased by a lay person called Carter who in 1919 sold it to the Anglican Diocese and since then, the property has been held in their trust.
We have a distinguished record of outstanding alumni – people like film director Philip Noyce, Peter Garrett from Midnight Oil, comedian Chris Lilly, journalist Mike Carlton, David Astle who creates the crosswords for Fairfax, cricketer Lisa Sthalekar, Sue Fear the mountaineer – some really impressive people have come through the school. Barker College has a distinguished history and I’m conscious of being a custodian of that for some time.
In what ways has the college evolved in the past 10-20 years?
The move towards co-education has been really important. The extension of and the flourishing of the co-education program has been instinctive over that period.
In the last five years, the Indigenous program has been next level and really exciting.
The robotics program over the past six years is also very important. For the last four years, we have sent students to the World Robotics Final in Texas. They have been among the top ranked teams in that. Our students have been moving around in international settings and doing really well. Their work in the robotics and STEM areas are really strong. We are doing our bit to make sure that people understand that Australian students are ingenious and effective. They bring capability and a little bit of a competitive streak too.
Some of our students will also be taking part in a robotics program in Hangzhou, China.
How do you provide support and leadership to your staff?
I think the starting point is trust. If I want to be trusted I have to first trust. I need to ensure I trust staff well enough to share, to include them in decision making, and ensure they have influence on strategy and purpose. The story becomes about all of us together. Once you trust, you then must empower, set expectations and get out of the way. Don’t make staff second-guess or think they are constantly searching for someone else’s mountaintop – they must find their own mountaintop.
Barker College employs 600 staff, with over 300 of them teaching staff. I’ve been blessed with some excellent staff who are miles better at teaching than I am so why would I get in the way anyway.
How do you encourage wellbeing among your staff and students?
The school has just appointed a Director of Wellbeing and established the Thrive Program, which is built on four pillars. In the academic program its enquiry and rhetoric, as instruments to develop the mind. In the wellness space we have created two big ideas that are actually quite simple. One is gratitude, which is about being grateful for everything that happens to us, even the bad things, because they are gifts. The other thing is service, the good things for which I am grateful need to be passed on to others. These sit at the heart of the school. The Director of Wellbeing will help to operationalise these things for staff, students and parents.
What role do you play in the day-to-day activities of the students?
I visit classrooms every day. I write birthday cards for every staff member and student and deliver them each day. I go to their classrooms. I sometimes direct school musicals. I don’t think you can influence a culture unless you are present.
The other thing is to seek a personal connection with as many staff and students as you can. Know their story and listen to them. I have a listening chair, with the legs sawn off and I sit there and we talk, usually they will start by saying what they think I want to hear but then we get further than that.
I strongly believe in cultural and symbolic leadership. You can’t influence a community unless you are present. There will be a thousand random things that happen in a day but do what you need to do to develop the sort of culture you want it to be.
What would you identify as some of the biggest challenges facing students of today?
We are in the best of times and the worst of times and I’m not the first to have said so. The world is so available but so complex and that makes it really hard and is having a big impact on what it is to be human. How does an emerging adult respond to a world that purports to be so available yet so menacing at times? Finding your place in the world is enormously stressful and relentless. I think this is a new pressure that is unique to this generation. We must frame wellbeing programs around those notions, around stillness, respectfulness, mindfulness, prayerfulness, and the recognition of a deep sense of gratitude. We are living in a completely different world to anything that ever existed before.
What has been your most memorable moment either as a teacher or specifically in the role of Principal?
It’s always about the students – about a life that has been touched or transformed in some way, where a student learns something they never thought they could do, or stared down their own barrel of self-doubt, or was on a destructive path but has reformed. Education is about transformation, taking you from where you were to somewhere else.
I’ve also been very privileged to see so many significant moments in schools but none surpass the creation of two schools for Indigenous students. They are the moments that give me the greatest sense of achievement.
You have been recognised for your work in creating greater opportunities for Indigenous students. What are some of the initiatives you have been involved in?
The first of these was the establishment of Gawura, which reached out to Indigenous children in Redfern and the inner city. It was the first school of its kind in Australia. It started in 2007 and from humble beginnings, it continues to thrive. A number of students who have been through the school have now gone to university. They are the first of their generation to become part of the leadership story for emerging Aboriginal leadership in this country.
Then in 2016, the second of these kinds of programs began with the opening of Darkinjung Barker on New South Wales’ Central Coast. We started this little school focused on the same idea as Gawura – to provide for and allow our Aboriginal children to thrive. It is now in its third year, with stunning results.
Now, we are working with the remote Aboriginal communities in the Utopia homelands in Central Australia, to explore the creation of another school for Aboriginal children, in Mulga Bore, in the middle of the dessert. They are Eastern Arrernte speakers, so still speak the traditional language and practice lore. We are working with the community to honour those traditional approaches to culture and learning and adapt the Australian curriculum around those traditional approaches. We are planning to start something during the second half of 2019.
What are your feelings about NAPLAN and its effectiveness?
I am a fan of NAPLAN. It is a diagnostic tool that is enormously helpful. If it was extinguished today, I think I would be looking for something to replace it tomorrow. There is a lot of catastrophising about NAPLAN and that isn’t helpful. It is not so much the instrument that is the issue, but the way it is viewed and the way it is being used that is the concern.
What traits make for an effective and successful leader in education today?
I think to some extent these qualities were always necessary – but then you probably need one more that wasn’t previously the case. Great leadership depends upon a big vision, a lot of love for the community you are trying to deliver that vision to, a passionate interest in humans thriving, recognising the boundless potential of every person that comes in front of you and never putting limitations on that based on test scores or judgements. Those qualities have always been necessary in school leadership, but I think what is different now is agility.
Around the vision or strategy, be prepared to hold things loosely so that you can be responsive to the changing circumstances that are before us. Schools in 2020 will look the same yet look very different.
The other reality is that children entering schools now will still be in the workforce in 2085. We all talk about a 21st century school but really we should be thinking about a 22nd century school. Where are we going? We can’t even begin to imagine.
Before, if you ran a good school, and every year looked like the previous year, you were often revered. This isn’t the case any more. We need to know what to hold onto and what to let go of.