Mark Morrison, Principal of Macleay Vocational College, tells Education Matters how he and his staff ensure education is available to all.
What makes Macleay Vocational College unique and how does it differ from other schools?
We help our students holistically with anything they need. Our college caters for youth who are disenfranchised from education due to homelessness, disrupted or transient domestic situations, exclusion from mainstream schools, violent or volatile behaviour, addictive behaviours due to parental influences, young mothers and babies, and court-ordered attendees who come from Juvenile Justice programs or incarceration. We have students enrolling in the College who are brought from a young age due to exclusion or restrictions from mainstream schools by Police and Community Youth Clubs Liaison Officers, Juvenile Justice Officers, Caseworkers from a number of non-government organisations (NGOs), Family and Community Services, and Home-Schooling Liaison Officers. Some students are 11 through to 13 years of age.
We have flexible, understanding and patient staff who recognise that these young people need someone to listen first, then share their traumas and treat them with respect. We all want to see our students given the support and skills to succeed in life.
The College is truly holistic with all staff involved in working with young people and the community. An example would be our administration team completing Youth and Community Service qualifications as well as learning natural therapies to support our students’ health and wellbeing.
We also operate 51 weeks a year with staff running a variety of holiday programs for students and the children in the community.
What is the school’s philosophy and how does it guide you and the teachers?
Our vision is about developing a sense of belonging, pride, personal identity and cultural awareness, to empower our students to become resilient, tolerant and self-confident participants in society. Our overall guide is always what is in the best interests of the young person, which is different for each. All staff understand each student’s traumas and challenges in life and deal with each individually.
What is the history of the college?
Our community is a small college in Kempsey, which was formed under the inspiration of the “Universal Declaration for Education for All”. Through the joint involvement of all three high schools in town, two state schools and a Catholic school, it began with the Training for Retail and Commerce program, then had an influx of donations of rooms and resources from the community and local high schools, and operated through various grants and workplace programs. The Macleay Vocational College became an independent ‘special school’ in 2000. We commenced offering alternative vocational programs to mainly 16- to 19-year-olds who had fallen out of education, as a primary way of re-engaging misguided youth. I would like to acknowledge the oustanding contribution of Jann Eason as our Foundation Principal.
How do you provide support and leadership to your staff?
By being a role model, coach and mentor, maintaining a passionate and enthusiastic interaction with them and helping out with challenges from students by providing the background information or reminders of the wonderfully positive things that happen on a daily basis. I see where each young person commenced their education and where are they now, due to the support of my very generous staff. I lead through the service model and would like to think I know my staff, understanding their family and personal needs, and provide direction and growth for the school in the years to come.
What role do you play in the day-to-day activities of the students?
I do everything to help each student feel welcome to our community each morning, being a person who listens to them, interacts with them, has a laugh with them, supports them as a priority, mentors them in their behaviour and recognition of where they are with tolerance of others. I feed the students during the first two lessons by walking food around to each classroom, so all the students and staff feel safe and valued. The list goes on.
If a student needs support in the cells or at court or to come clean on their legal issues, then I am there. If a student needs support with domestic challenges including violence, I will go and pick them up whatever time of day or night it is. If they need support with domestic challenges, we organise appointments for them, take them to the doctor, and speak on their behalf to the NGOs who come to College to make things happen faster.
What has been your most memorable moment, either as a teacher or specifically in the role of principal?
I have lots every day. I love coming to the College and being with our staff and young people every day. I have never woken up and thought I don’t want to go in today, no matter what the challenge is we are facing. I feel that for our young people to trust us and want to be involved in what we offer them is amazing. I remind myself of that each day and smile.
It is memorable when my students give back to the community through cooking for others, helping those less fortunate than themselves with our 17-kilometre beach walk for charity, or returning after they have left to mentor and share with current students going through similar things.
I remember a young woman who is a young mother. She came to the college in 2011 and then left for personal reasons, and she returned late in 2013 as a young mother who wanted to be active and maintain a positive influence in her child’s life. She completed her Higher School Certificate (HSC) and a traineeship in business over a three-year period, secured a safe place to raise her family, gained her driver’s licence and now works at the local hospital. She was the first in her family to complete her HSC and continues to be involved as a mentor in our Ginda Barri centre, which is a place for young mothers and their children to come to share in educational success.
With the young people I visit in detention centres across the state, they are so grateful to see me and speak fondly of our time together and their time at the college. When they leave detention and return to the college, they are determined to stay out of detention, and as a result we have a high success rate at keeping them from returning to gaol. They feel part of our community and want to help others to avoid going down the same path.
What traits make for an effective and successful leader in education today?
Building trusting relationships is at the forefront of developing a culture of belonging within any community. This allows each staff member to find their purpose in the mechanisms of the community. Being aware of the strengths of your staff and supporting them to use these to promote a positive culture and standing by them when times are tough is part of being a leader.
What are your feelings about NAPLAN and its effectiveness?
We use NAPLAN as a way to promote the students’ feeling of belonging to a wider educational group than just college, as most of our students have not participated in NAPLAN testing in their other schools before coming here.
We use this as their chance to have a go. I’m not concerned with the result as it gives us a place to start.