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.