At Saint Stephen’s College on the Gold Coast, there is a strong emphasis on developing the soft skills as well as the hard skills, to prepare students for the future world and encourage a global perspective. Education Matters speaks with Headmaster Jamie Dorrington.
What is the philosophy of Saint Stephen’s College and how does it guide you and your staff?
First of all we believe that people generally, and students in particular, work better when they have clear and reasonable boundaries, so they know where they stand. We believe that all students have untapped potential and need to be encouraged to try new things so they can discover where their passion lies. Students are encouraged to participate in different subjects and extra-curricular activities and know that they are supported by staff who care about them. At Saint Stephen’s, we use blended learning, combining educational technology with face-to-face contact. That’s why we build a lot of facilities that are geared towards that blended style of learning. It’s about providing contemporary learning spaces and pedagogies, combined with promoting mutual respect and an understanding of how we can support each other.
How does Saint Stephen’s College differ from other schools?
I’m sure all schools have a commitment to their students. Our approach is comprehensive because we have coordinated a range of innovations across all areas of the school.
We want to ensure our students develop the skills to work effectively in teams, apply interdisciplinary knowledge, communicate effectively in a number of ways, have learning networks that extend beyond the classroom, and develop self-mastery or self-regulation for life beyond school. In other words, we don’t just pay lip service to the skills and attitudes that will allow our graduates to thrive.
In what ways has Saint Stephen’s College evolved since you joined the school as Headmaster in 2003?
First of all, when I got here around 60 per cent of the school was made up of tin sheds or demountable buildings. Now, we have undisputedly some of the best learning facilities in the country. We have a lot of visitors from other schools coming to see what we have done.
I’ve also built on some of the things that I inherited. While a lot of schools claim to be P-12, we are genuinely a P-12 school. There are many shared learning spaces and students of all ages share the grounds.
When I joined Saint Stephen’s College, we had only two international students, now we have more than 160 plus a lot of short-stay visitors. We are really trying to promote that global perspective so that students can form friendships and grow up with people from difference places. This is so important because one day in the future they will go on to work with people from various backgrounds. We have built a solid reputation internationally and have a high demand for international students at the school.
How do you provide support and leadership to your staff?
Hopefully by leading by example. I make sure I appoint good people and then support them however I can.
Staff are provided with many professional development opportunities in-house as well as externally. We have staff attending and speaking at conferences in Australia and overseas.
Together with my executive leadership team and other members of staff, we work to ensure that all staff are well resourced and part of a team that really supports each other.
How do you encourage wellbeing among staff and students?
For our students, Saint Stephen’s has a positive education program that came into place this year. This is in addition to our strong pastoral care program that has been in place for many years.
For staff, the school has a great employee assistance plan. We also watch out for each other and make sure everyone feels supported, not just in terms of professional fulfillment, but also if an employee feels they need support with personal issues too.
What role do you play in the day-to-day activities of the students?
I hope the students see me as one of their biggest supporters. I attend as many events as I can. I have not been in the classrooms as much as I’d like, but that’s because there are so many programs we are currently delivering and working on. Although I’d like to be in the classrooms more, I ensure I attend 80-90 per cent of the school’s events. I also attend the Year 11 camp every year.
What sort of an emphasis does the school place on Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM)?
STEAM is a huge strength at the school. We have a lot of students interested in each of those areas. At Saint Stephen’s, Science has traditionally been strong for both boys and girls. We are really proud of the great programs we have put together in the STEAM space in the last few years.
The part of STEAM that often gets missed is Engineering. We have two highly skilled teachers at the school who previously worked in the engineering profession.
Saint Stephen’s also won the regional Science and Engineering Challenge in 2017 and 2018, and came second this year. Our senior Science students have presented a STEAM program to local primary schools for a number of years, and we have had students presenting at the Griffith University Pop-Up Science Show. This same group of students has also been invited by an education group in China to do their presentation over there. Additionally, the school has just developed a new STEAM expeditionary learning space.
What are some of the biggest challenges currently facing the secondary education sector?
There’s a call now from employers, not just in Australia but globally, to rethink what we are doing with education. We always have a high proportion of students going on to university, but there will be a move more towards micro-credentialing. Not all students will go on to university, and those that do may not find full-time employment in their chosen field for some time. When students join the workforce, to be successful, they will need to continue to learn throughout their employment, they will need to be able to work collaboratively and have a learning network that extends beyond the school or workplace.
It is an interesting and challenging time in education, where education is transitioning to a more contemporary approach that involves more than great results at Year 12.
What has been your most memorable moment either as a teacher or specifically in the role of principal?
The Year 11 Leadership Retreat is a definite highlight. It is something I started at a different school in 1992. In all those years, I have only missed out on attending two of these camps.
People often point to the facilities and the programs we are doing at the school, but for me, the most memorable moments come from those retreats and the day-to-day interactions with the students.
It’s interesting because this year we were nominated for six awards at the Australian Education Awards; and were also in the finals for the 2019 Financial Review BOSS Magazine Most Innovative Companies list.
It’s great to have this sort of recognition because it shows that all of the hard work we are doing is being recognised. It’s wonderful to be nominated for these sorts of awards, provided they accurately reflect the positive impact we are having on students.
What are your feelings about NAPLAN and its effectiveness?
As we all know, NAPLAN has morphed into something it was not intended to be. It was originally designed as a safety net to identify students who required additional help. We always had a handle on this.
Schools have traditionally been fairly cocooned – they weren’t open enough about what they were doing. Then NAPLAN came about, and some people have used it as a measure of school effectiveness. As educators, we should have been on the front foot and presented more comprehensive measures. Of course, quantitative data can only measure a tiny fraction of what we refer to as ‘education’. Most of what we do is about the character being developed among students, how they interact with each other and their ability to forge their own future.
What traits make for an effective and successful leader in education today?
I think persistence, clear communication and a commitment to both students and staff are important. A leader should have a genuine desire to empower their staff. There is no room for any principal to run a school from a central control room. Instead they need to be there to support their staff and ensure staff have the resources they need so they can continue to do a wonderful job for their students.