Monday, 26 October 2015

New initiative for acceleration and challenge (2015 Term 4 Week 4)

Over the last few years, one of the major priorities for the school has been to ensure that every student achieves rich and deep learning outcomes. A key strategy in achieving this goal has been working with the teachers to differentiate the curriculum to deliver appropriate levels of challenge and support to all students. For most students, this appropriate challenge and support is provided through the professional practice of the classroom teachers. 

Over the last three years the formation of the K-12 Learning Enrichment Team, consisting of staff specialising in both learning support and learning extension, has enabled us to deliver on this priority. The Learning Enrichment Team have developed a common framework, language and processes to help ensure that student needs are recognised and that staff are supported and equipped in their professional practice. I am deeply appreciative to Dr Lye Chan Long and, before her, Mrs Debbie Williams, for their leadership of this team. The team is significantly larger now than it was at its formation and it will be increasing again in 2016 as part of our quest to improve student learning outcomes.

In 2016 we are undertaking a number of initiatives that are specifically directed towards helping high-achieving students to thrive further in their learning. We already have a number of students who are accelerated in one way or another. A number of Junior School students learn with older students in various Key Learning Areas and withdrawal groups continue to provide additional challenge. From time to time consideration will also be given to grade-skipping students as a way of ensuring that they do experience the appropriate level of challenge; any actions of this sort are informed by the data and particular circumstances of individual students. 

Acceleration also takes place in the Senior School, most notably seen in individual students moving to complete elements of their HSC earlier than is the normal pattern. This is more appropriate, and easier accomplished, in some subjects rather than others. Over the last three years individual students have accelerated through the Software Design and Development course, achieving excellent results. Likewise a Year 10 student has just achieved the top results in the Year 11 Music 2 course and a Year 9 student has just topped the Year 11 Mathematics and Mathematics Extension courses. We will continue to identify opportunities for individual students to accelerate, based on their ability, their interest and the opportunities.

However, In 2016 we are introducing two new options to accelerate a group of students through their pattern of study. First, we are commencing an accelerated course in Studies of Religion, whereby students in Year 11 who are doing either Extension English or Extension Maths, will be able to accelerate through the 1-Unit Studies of Religion course in one year. This will enable them to experience an HSC exam while still in Year 11, 'bank' one unit and thereby reduce their overall study load in both Year 11 and Year 12. This pattern of study has been attractive to a number of our most able students and we are confident that it will help them to achieve strong results.

Second, we are also beginning a long-term commitment to accelerating students through the Maths syllabus. Early in 2016 we will identify a class of high-achieving Year 7 Maths students and accelerate them through both Year 7 and Year 8 maths. This will place them a whole year 'ahead of schedule', enabling them to do their HSC Mathematics while in Year 11. It is our expectation that accelerating a class in this way will be our ongoing practice. 

It is important to note that this pattern of acceleration does not disadvantage other students. It will still be possible for students to do their maths study at the normal rate and to achieve excellent results. 

Acceleration is not necessarily the best path for all students and it is not a necessary path either to validate ability or to achieve excellent results. In the significant majority of cases, appropriate challenge in learning is available to students through extension and enrichment opportunities. However, having reviewed the curriculum and the constraints within which we operate, it appears that these two significant new whole-class acceleration initiatives are a good way forward to build our culture of academic excellence.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Evidence regarding independent school education (2015 Term 1 Week 3)

Claims ought to be backed with evidence. As the maxim has it, "In God we trust; everyone else brings data." As a fee-paying parent, as well as the principal of an independent school, I want to know what evidence there is that my family's investment in our children's education will bring a value-add for them. While it is not difficult to point to experiences and tell anecdotes and make observations that support our decision to choose independent education, I was very interested to come across a summary of some publically-available and robust data on the matter.

Much of what follows in the infographic and subsequent comments has been drawn together by the Association of the Heads of Independent Schools Australia, which is a national peak body for schools like Inaburra.

The four key academic strengths of independent schools are excellence, gain, equity and ethos. It is very interesting to note that Australian research has found that academic environment is the most statistically significant factor explaining the ‘value adding’ of independent schools. Codes of behaviour, homework regimes and the high expectations of teachers of all their students are important elements of a school ethos and help create strong learning communities with good academic outcomes.

The features underlying these academic strengths are outlined in the infographic. These factors align the features of independent school education such as pastoral care and co-curricular activities with the quality of teaching and the positive, demonstrable commitment of parents to the importance of education.

All of the above to combine to provide academic opportunity for our children.

It may be that the evidence surveyed above is not new to you. It may not be particularly important to you, being outweighed by the daily experience of your children at school, the anecdotes of their opportunities and activities and the myriad other factors that constitute the Inaburra education. However, I hope that you are reassured that your investment in your child's education has a sound evidentiary basis.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Bullying and Inaburra (2015 Term 4 Week 2)

One of the main concerns of parents with reference to their children has to do with bullying. No-one wants their child to experience bullying. However, bullying is more common than any of us would like. A recent editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald discussed the findings of a survey of students in eighty Australian schools. According to the article, the Australian Child Wellbeing Project found that one in five students in years 4 and 6 are bullied at least once a week. The bullying comes in multiple forms 
"from dirty looks to being threatened or humiliated. Bullied children are often subjected to physical violence or have their belongings stolen. They can be excluded from a social group and gossiped about or targeted online through social media." 
How do these findings compare to the experience of Inaburra? Overall, we have reason to believe that bullying is less prevalent in our school than in many others. For example, in our recent parent satisfaction survey, 88% of parents agreed with the statement Inaburra provides a caring and safe environment for students. This represented a 4% improvement since the last survey in 2012 and it is 6% higher than the benchmark for similar schools.

In the same survey, parents indicated their understanding about the extent of bullying at the school; the results are outlined in the slide below.

A number of observations can be made about this slide. First, there is an error in transcription in the bullet points in the top right hand section - but only close readers will have noted it! Second, our experience roughly parallels that of the similar schools at which we are benchmarked. Third, the results represent an improvement since the 2012 survey. In fact, in every result to do with bullying, parents affirmed the school's trajectory and progress. For example, 82% of parents agreed with the statement The School has a very clear policy with regard to bullying and 81% agreed with the statement The School works towards an environment where bullying is not tolerated.
We are still waiting for the results of the Year 6 and Year 12 surveys for 2015, but the 2014 student results are broadly aligned with the parent responses outlined above. It is worth noting that far fewer of  Year 6 Inaburra students in 2014 thought that bullying is a serious problem than the students of benchmark schools (2% compared to 8%).
We should not be surprised that young people treat one another badly on occasion. When they do so, they are mirroring the behaviour of people throughout the world in which they live. Bullying happens in the workplace, in the home, on the sporting field and between nations. The ongoing reality of bullying resonates with the Christian account of humanity, which understands each one of us to have the capacity for, and inclination towards, doing wrong. When we take one thousand young people and place them in close community with one another during the fraught and tumultuous years of childhood and adolescence, it ought not surprise us when some of them do the wrong thing towards others.
Schools are far more sensitive to bullying now than they have been in the past. It is inarguable that some behaviours and practices that were previously regarded as being usual or tolerable, are no longer acceptable. I heard a story about a school during the 90s at which older students compelled the new Year 7 students to walk through a brimming urinal on their first day of school as an 'initiation' to high school. If it was to happen now, such an incident would be likely to lead to summary termination of enrolment.
However, it is not the case that all negative peer interactions constitute bullying and it is not the case that our young people ought never to encounter a negative peer interaction. Life requires the navigation of relationships, power, connectedness and all of the elements that are part of the human social world. This happens in the spheres of learning, work, leisure, and family, and it will continue to be our children's experience in adulthood as well as childhood. 
Viewed in this way, a negative peer interaction is a learning opportunity. If your child is not invited to a social event, you have the chance to help reframe the disappointment. How will our children learn to deal with 'missing out', unless they do miss out. Not being invited to a party is a similar experience, on a smaller scale, to not being offered a job interview or not being selected for a team or not succeeding in any highly valued pursuit. We learn and grow through the negative events; thankfully the negative events that are characteristic of most childhoods have lower stakes than those of adulthood.
This is not to dismiss or ignore bullying. Inaburra is continuing to work hard to be a safe environment for our students and we are unrelenting in our expectation that our young people will learn to do their relationships well. You can find some information and resources about bullying here, including the paths of communication for reporting bullying. However, my encouragement to parents is threefold: 

  • First, be realistic about the fact that your child will have negative interactions with others. Sometimes they will be blameless, sometimes they will not, and often it will be grey. However, as the parent of a young person, you should be confident that there will be bad days and tears and distress. It will happen!
  • Second, understand that your role as parent is not just to protect but to prepare. Our goal as parents is to prepare our children to be able to make their way in the world without our protective oversight. Therefore, when a bad day comes, ask yourself how this might be made into a learning experience.
  • Third, trust us and work with us. Our goal is to work in partnership with you in the interests of your child. The school is not the enemy. (Nor, I would add, is the other student the enemy.) We have a much better chance of achieving positive long-term outcomes for your children if we are able to work together.