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Leading from the front at Barker College

Barker College principal Phillip Heath spoke at EduTECH this year on how to incorporate master planning within a school’s cultural milieu. Here, he shares his thoughts on leadership and how the school has evolved in his 10-year tenure. 

What distinguishes Barker College?

There are two distinct differences at Barker College. One; it’s a school that deliberately and intentionally allows people to thrive in a holistic sense – emotionally, physiologically, physically, academically. Two; we have a firm coeducational identity. Everybody can find a place and thrive irrespective of interests, skillset or capacity. We’re committed to that in a way that brings young men and women together for the proper expression of human interaction and identity.

Barker College recently completed its transition to become fully co-educational from pre-kindergarten to Year 12.

What is the history of the school and its philosophy to guide staff and students?

Established in 1891 with 18 students enrolled, the school was named in memory of the second Bishop of Sydney, Frederic Barker. In 1905, it was purchased by William Carter, who would remain the headmaster until his retirement in 1929. He developed the school magazine ‘The College Barker’, introduced the striped school blazer that is still worn today by senior students, and introduced the school crest. Carter transferred ownership of the school to the Anglican Church in 1919. Barker College junior school was created in 1944 and in 1975 it became the first independent school in Sydney to introduce co-education. In 2022, the school completed the transition and is now fully co-educational from pre-kindergarten to Year 12. Barker has grown further to include three Indigenous school campuses; Darkinjung Barker on the Central Coast opened in 2016, Ngarralingayil Barker in the Lower Hunter opened in 2020, and Dhupuma Barker in northeast Arnhem Land opened in 2021.

The school motto, Honor Non Honores, in translation is ‘seek honour above rewards’.

What are the main highlights in your own career, and what attracted you to the role of Principal at Barker College?

I’m the ninth principal of the school in 133 years, and have been here for 10 years. Previously, I was principal of St Andrew’s Cathedral School in Sydney’s CBD for over 14 years, and then principal for five years at Radford College in Canberra.

Barker College Principal Phillip Heath.

Barker College was kind enough to invite me, and I felt I could make a contribution. There are fabulous schools in Australia, and I’ve been privileged to serve in three of them. Barker College is now fully co-educational, from pre-kindergarten to Year 12 – managing that growth has been one of the highlights of my career. There was very strong interest in a fully co-ed school in Sydney and we were very pleased to take up that opportunity. It has meant growth and it’s been an exciting challenge to maintain our culture without losing our soul as we grew.

We’ve made a conscious approach to personalising all experiences at the school, to avoid the kind of mechanisation that often goes with growth. Instead, we’re making sure that it remains personal, on a human scale and celebrating the life of an individual. We’ve worked hard intentionally on building our culture.

In what ways does Barker College take steps to foster a sense of community on the school campus?

I deliver hand-written birthday cards every morning to every student, without fail. If their birthday falls on a Saturday, I deliver their card on Friday (or Monday, if their birthday is on Sunday). I go into their classroom, to their desk, to give them a personal greeting. With a student population of 2810, it’s a lot of birthday cards. If their birthday is in the holidays, I post it to them. Nobody misses out.

I also encourage senior staff to attend everything that the students are doing to build personal connections with students and to celebrate their moments. Those are small things, but in some ways, they’re not. It’s about breaking down the remoteness of the office; I could be doing an awesome job but never leave my office, and that to me would be a missed opportunity. Leadership is chiefly about influence, and you can’t influence if they don’t know you.

Barker College is renowned internationally for its Robotics Programs and competes at the global level.

What are the school’s main priorities next year?

I spend about 50% of my time on the ‘now’ and 50% on ‘over the horizon’. In terms of the future, we’re looking at starting a special interest school for the children of refugees (kindergarten to Year 10) as early as next year. In my view, the existence of schools like Barker cannot be taken for granted into the future. We have to contribute back to the national interest. Refugee education is a big challenge that the country faces, and it largely rests on the shoulders of government schools – it’s time our sector got involved. 

We also want to continue our work in northeast Arnhem Land and start a high school up there. We’re working hard towards that and it’s going to take our attention in the next little while. 

Barker College principal Phillip Heath with students and staff at Dhupuma Barker in northeast Arnhem Land.

We want to be one of the great co-ed schools of the southern hemisphere. We want respectful relationships between young men and women growing up safely and securely together comfortable in their own skin, and their own identity. When people think about co-ed done really well in the southern hemisphere, if not beyond, I want people to think of Barker.

What traits make for an effective leader in education today?

I’m influenced by two American researchers from the late 20th century who talked about cultural and symbolic leadership. In the leadership space, be focused on doing the things that pre-eminently only you can do and that build culture. Identify those things in the school that you think need to grow, or strengthen, and then don’t waste your shot. 

Get involved. If you go to watch a concert or a basketball game, it matters that you’ve gone. If you favour one aspect of school life over another, everyone will see that. Spread yourself out across as many of those experiences. You need to have a genuine interest in how everyone is going.

Indigenous education is a major part of the Barker College identity. How has that evolved?

In conversations with local community, an opportunity arose to start co-ed kindergarten to Year 6 schools on country where community was, bringing a Barker experience to Indigenous kids, using disused government primary schools. The schools had closed and we took them over, paying a peppercorn rent for them. Darkinjung Barker opened in 2016 on the site of the original Yarramalong Public School. Ngarralingayil Barker opened in 2020 on the site of the former Wollombi Public School.

The third school, Dhupuma Barker, opened in 2021 in partnership with the Yothu Yindi Foundation and the Gunyangara community in northeast Arnhem Land. There was an underutilised government school annex that we took over and we’re about to turn that into a high school – building work has begun on a permanent school. Creating a leadership capacity amongst the Yolŋu people is very important. That’s part of the big idea going forward.

This kind of Indigenous education model is about reaching out instead of bringing in boarding students. We close the gap before it opens. We work with families, and help kids celebrate their Indigenous identity at the same time as doing well in NAPLAN and school attendance.

 

What role does the Robotics Program play in the curriculum at Barker College?

This year is our 10th anniversary of our Robotics Program. In all humility, Barker is renowned internationally for robotics and we compete at the global level. We represented Australia in an international robotics competition in Singapore in September. We’re up against the best in America where there is heavy resourcing, and we compete very well against them, despite the fact that most of the competitions are in the United States or Canada, and all of them use empirical measurements or instruments. We also have to take the robot overseas piece by piece and rebuild it when we get there. 

We’ve also introduced robotics to Dhupuma Barker in northeast Arnhem Land. This year, we took a team to Dallas, Texas to compete in the VEX Robotics World Championship. They came straight out of remote Australia, the only Indigenous team in the world to qualify for the World Championship, having placed fourth in the Australian National Championship, and got ranked about 40th in their division in the world – a phenomenal achievement.

A team from Dhupuma Barker in northeast Arnhem Land prepare to compete in a robotics competition.

What lessons could principals or aspiring education leaders learn from your experience?

The centre piece of any school is its students. But I would add one more thing, and that’s something that I’ve learned over the last 10 years, and particularly at Barker; the more you care for and support your staff (both teaching and non-teaching), the better the students will enjoy the school. Getting that right, and caring for people so that they feel safe and supported to do their job, is emerging as one of the biggest challenges. Don’t see staff as an object to manage, but as an enormous asset of strength in the life of the school. They’re not a cost overhead. They’re a vital part of building the culture of the school. The staff at Barker continue to inspire and uplift the whole community. At Barker, the headcount is over 1,000 staff – but the teaching staff is between 350 and 400.

Discover more about Barker College on www.schoolcompare.com.au, powered by WhichSchool? magazine.

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