Ros Curtis, Principal of St Margaret’s Anglican school in Brisbane, speaks to Education Matters about how the school’s philosophy helps ensure its practices best prepare its students for their futures.
What is the School’s philosophy and how does it guide you and your staff?
The School’s philosophy is steeped in that of its founders – the Sisters of the Society of the Sacred Advent.
The Sisters’ educational philosophy, based on religious principles and never narrowly academic, also actively sought to educate the whole personality, physical, mental and spiritual that the girls may live to their fullest capacity.
One of the key pillars of our strategic plan is to enrich the student experience across all these areas.
Our staff are very involved in delivering not just academic learning, but a broad range of sports, clubs and activities to benefit the education of the whole child.
The school is also guided by its six core values of passion, integrity, respect, courage, spirit and faith.
The students understand how these values are enacted and are very much embedded in all we do and the way we interact with one another. Another key element of the school’s philosophy is called the St Margaret’s way.
There’s a way in which we strive to do things at St Margaret’s; a way in which we seek to treat people throughout our community; and a way in which we aim to serve others.
How does the School differ from other schools?
First, it’s a single-sex school for girls from Pre-Prep to Year 12 (with boys welcome in Pre-Prep and Prep). As a medium-sized independent girls’ school we place an emphasis on the personalisation of the student experience. Every teacher will know every child well; every student will know the names of all their cohort. In secondary school our Heads of Year travel with the same cohort from Year 7 to Year 12 and this adds to this personalised learning journey.
We are one of the largest full-time girls’ boarding schools in Queensland. This contrasts with some schools who offer weekly boarding. While our boarders have generous weekend leave, the full-time aspect of it means there are always many boarders in the house of a weekend with plenty of structured and unstructured activities on offer.
The school has a number of unique programs. One is our global exchange program which, when international travel allows, offers Year 10 girls to experience an exchange for one term in one of 11 schools in six countries. Being a boarding school also opens up unique experiences to our day students to experience a different way of life both in Australia (often in regional and remote parts of the country) and overseas. This is why we call ourselves a local school with a global outlook. We are a smaller sized school in the beautiful, safe and leafy suburb of Ascot, but our outlook prepares our students to view life and its possibilities through an expansive global lens.
What is the history of the school?
The work of the Sisters of the Sacred Advent (SSA) who founded St Margaret’s in 1895, began in Brisbane in 1892 with the arrival of its founder, Sister Caroline Amy Balguy, who had been professed in the Anglican community of John the Baptist, Clewer, England. She came to Brisbane to do welfare work for the young women and girls, and soon realised there was also a need for schooling for girls, noting that in order to have a progressive and tolerant community, educated women are a pre-requisite.
In what ways has the school evolved since it was established?
St Margaret’s remains very aligned to its traditions and the Sisters’ philosophy but has always evolved, seeking to respond to societal changes and ensuring its practices best prepare its students for their futures.
The school has always welcomed boarders – its first three enrolments in 1895 were boarders. It has remained true to its service of generations of daughters of rural and regional Australia since its inception and has been always recognised as a leading boarding school. Recently, in 2019 and 2020, it was named the nation’s top boarding school (in the Australian Education Awards). The school now accepts boarders from across Australia and the world.
The school laid a strong foundation for sport in its early history. It was one of three foundation members of the Queensland Girls Secondary Schools Sports Association established in 1908 and helped found the Brisbane Schoolgirls Rowing Association (BSRA) in 1990 but had been rowing since the early part of the century. The school recently transformed one third of its campus to build a state-of-the-art sports precinct which caters for the curriculum and sporting offerings at the school as well as facilitating positive wellbeing through promoting an active lifestyle.
Innovation is critical in today’s educational landscape and the school is always looking to adopt or create best practice in all it offers. The school recently has surpassed 1000 enrolments – the highest in its history.
How do you provide support and leadership to your staff?
My job as a Principal is to focus on the quality of the student experience and within that the teaching and learning program. Therefore, I focus on the quality of staff, right from recruitment to ensuring access to growth and inspiring professional learning activities while working at St Margaret’s. Highly effective staff will ensure a strong teaching and learning program in the school. I have a very broad job description with many facets, so in many ways it’s a CEO role and my job is to be across all the areas of the school – whether that be facilities, the academic program, finance, staffing. I am constantly focused on facilitating the work of all staff in all areas and helping them achieve and celebrate the best possible outcomes.
How do you encourage wellbeing among your staff and students?
First, it’s by providing the right environment for staff and students in which to work and learn. The behaviours which encourage this are set out in the St Margaret’s way, which asks questions like, how do I want to feel when I come to school each day and how can I ensure others feel that way? Staff have a wellbeing committee which help promote connection across the many areas of the school and a sense of belonging. We hold weekly staff morning teas as a common place to gather for all staff and have rituals such as random acts of kindness which again promote a culture of wellbeing.
Students have a comprehensive wellbeing program which helps foster their personal development.
A pastoral care team meet regularly to discuss student issues and every child is known, so any pastoral issues are visible to the teachers closest to that child.
What role do you play in the day-to-day activities of your students?
I try to connect daily with students, whether formally in school assemblies, or most often informally – standing in line at the school café waiting for a coffee for example. The students know I am approachable and happy to engage. I try to demonstrate this though participating in activities like staff/student cricket matches, being on the sporting sidelines of a weekend, and attending music performances etc.
What are some of the challenges faced by teachers in the secondary sector?
One of the biggest challenges for teachers today is handling the anxiety of young people. Even some parents have difficulty in knowing how to deal with their child’s anxiety and look to the school for guidance and it can be very challenging. I believe there is too much systemic and societal pressure on young people to perform at a very high level; but it also can come from parental expectations as well, and it’s having a huge effect on young people.
The other is building resilience in the students (which has a close relationship to anxiety). We teach our students about it – they know all the theory, but they need to be able to build that resilience through practice. It’s the same with resilience. You need to endure some discomfort and demonstrate resilience to build it.
What has been your most memorable moment either as a teacher or specifically in the role of principal?
Generally, some of my most memorable moments as an educator have been realised many years after a student has left the school. You never know when the seeds you plant come to fruition. I often think we are educating the 28-year-olds – they’ve studied, learned more about themselves and then you see that St Margaret’s influence kicking in.
Specifically, in recent years at St Margaret’s I have been very proud that we have received innovation awards for three consecutive years.
Many of these ideas have been the result of my overseas sabbatical trips and bringing back ideas based on some of the most successful educational institutions from across the globe.
Also, we were one of the leading schools with continuous reporting, which everyone is now doing; in fact, many schools looked to us for advice and guidance.
What are your feelings about NAPLAN and its effectiveness?
I think a solid foundation in literacy and numeracy is fundamental to the educational outcomes of students, so at St Margaret’s we work hard right from Pre-Prep to ensure our students are building age-appropriate skills. The school performs well in NAPLAN – not because we teach to the test – but because we are already embedding literacy and numeracy as essential learning building blocks throughout the school’s programs.
What traits make for an effective and successful leader in education today?
A principal is first and foremost the educational leader of the school. Everything the principal should focus on is the quality of the student experience and within that the teaching and learning program. However, many things feed into that, which make it a very complex operation, so a principal also needs to have oversight of everything from the quality of facilities, staff and food in the boarding house through to the effectiveness of programs. So, in many ways it’s more like a CEO role. One of the keys to that is surrounding yourself with a good senior leadership team and excellent staff across all facets of the operations and steering them to the focused goal of the student experience.