Time given to principals can make difference

Opinion Article

2011 April, 2

Brian Short is the fine principal of Brisbane Grammar School, probably Queensland’s finest school. He  is only the 11th principal of this 143-year-old school, established in 1868. As Short’s guest at their  speech day last December, I was treated to a virtuoso program of music and all manner of artistic and  academic achievement.  


I was proud that some Aboriginal boys from Cape York are benefiting from what is among the best  tutelage available in this country. Attending such a school is an acute privilege.  


Grammar, like all great private and public schools, is not just a school, it is an institution. It has well-established traditions and exudes history. Its grounds and buildings carry the memory of a learning  community approaching its sesquicentenary. The quality of its faculty is obvious, and they can afford  to be highly choosey from the long queues of teachers who wish to teach there. Its leadership and  administration are stable.


Sitting there listening to a ridiculously sublime rendition of a medley from West Side Story I returned  to my cogitations about what makes great institutions and not just schools. The longevity of principals  is key. In Grammar’s case the average tenure of its principals is almost 15 years. It is ever thus with  great schools.


They are not businesses or bureaucracies where leaders can be interchanged at will and in short order.  They are not led by chief executives or mandarins. Good administration and management are necessary  but not sufficient. Principals such as Short do not lead polities of students, faculties and parents. They  are leaders of moral communities that have a past and reach into the future. The ethics of such a  community are like a torch carefully kindled and handed down the years.  


Great educators are not mere functionaries. They are people able and engaged in the highest calling:  carrying the tender charge of preparing youth for life. Samuel Johnson once said: “Every man thinks  meanly of himself for not having been a soldier.” I harbour the same sentiment for not having been an  educator.  


James Ruse Agricultural High School in western Sydney is the Australian champion of high schools,  consistently topping the list of top performers in the NSW HSC. The conversion rate of its school leavers going on to university is almost 100 per cent.  


It is a selective public school founded in 1959 under headmaster James C. Hoskin. Like all such institutions James Ruse became Australia’s leading school under the leadership of a visionary educator  who would lead the school for two decades until his retirement in 1978. Hoskin’s name is synonymous  with James Ruse: without him the school that was first selective for its agricultural focus and then  selective for academic achievement would not be what it is today.  


Every great school will disclose the same history of key leaders who founded them or who carried the  old flame and led a step change in the school’s growth and stature. Not all of those in a venerable line  are of equal presence and charisma, and not all of their contributions are equally compelling, but any  such unevenness in leadership barely perturbs the momentum and stability of the institution.  


Two weeks ago I wrote about one of my favourite Australian schools, Djarragun College, an independent school supported by the Anglican Church and servicing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students from far northern Queensland. Djarragun was born out of controversy, following the  collapse of its predecessor school in Cairns, but under the leadership of principal Jean Illingworth the  new school vindicated the decision by former archbishop Peter Hollingworth to start a new school in  the sugarcane fields near Gordonvale. Through Djarragun’s 10 years of growth, Illingworth and her  school have inspired many admirers. I have seen many schools across the countryside and this school  had a magic formula.  


Educator and conservative commentator Geoffrey Partington wrote the following response to The  Australian: “The problem in indigenous schools is not bad teachers: few teachers can truly teach if  students are absent or, when present, are truculent and bloody-minded; and when no effective deterrents are available. The fact is that progress in education demands regular attendance, calm  classrooms and steady effort.


“But it seems the higher the truancy rate and the worse the conduct inside school, the more resources  are poured in and the more fuss made about the rights of students who are punished.  


“We should end the compassion that kills. Instead, let’s have the toughness needed to be kind. But who  would dare propose the changes needed to improve life in Djarragun, town camps and many other sad places in our country?”  


Partington is right: we should end the compassion that kills. Djarragun’s achievement is that the magic  formula employed in this school has been the very tough love Partington says is needed.  


In her speech day address in 2008 Illingworth set out the beliefs that underpinned her school: “First, we  believe in discipline. We have strict codes of behaviour, not just for students but for staff as well. Our  policy of tough love actually does work. Students feel safe in an environment where they know exactly  what the boundaries are and how far they can push those boundaries. A disciplined environment makes  it possible to actually get on with teaching instead of spending an inordinate amount of time on trying  to discipline an unruly class.  


“Second, we insist that everyone at Djarragun treats everyone else with respect and love. Again, trite  words but loaded with meaning for students and staff alike. If you show respect to all and treat  everyone with love, no energy will be wasted on negative pursuits that detract from achieving real goals.  


“Third, we believe in speaking the truth. We tell the story as it is. Failure is not something to be worried about or something to hide but something that happens to everyone at some stage of life and  from which we learn. Students who fail a course, who fail to comply with set-down rules or who fail to  attend school regularly know exactly where they have failed. They also know they are not condemned. Djarragun is the school of 20 chances and if you use up your 20 chances we will no doubt give you 20 more. Too often in Australia today indigenous people continue to be treated with a degree of  paternalism that is a subtle but sure way to disempower and keep subservient. Mediocre work is praised  to the heavens, poor behaviour is excused as a cultural thing and slack attitudes are explained away  with some other euphemisms. We don’t do this at Djarragun. Students know where they stand and parents know exactly what their children are doing and how they are travelling . . . Students are encouraged to reach higher and further and to keep extending themselves to go beyond what they  thought they were capable of.”  


This week it was reported the college board has asked the principal to respond to a variety of allegations described in a report prepared by a local lawyer.  


Djarragun is far short of being an institution. What happens to the visionary educator who in my belief  lit a beacon of hope at the bottom of the educational sink will determine whether Djarragun remains a mere school or one day becomes a great institution.  


The world easily finds school leaders. Founders of fine institutions are rarer because the building and maintenance of moral communities involves an elusive alchemy.

Time given to principals can make difference