Living at school – a new take on boarding

2013 was meant to be the final year for providing boarding at Ravenswood. As the year approached, we took another look at how boarding might be offered into the future of the school. From this evolved the Ravenswood Residential College, which provides accommodation for senior school students in Years 10, 11 and 12.

Ours is a small house, taking up to around 30 students at most as full or weekly boarders. We know that many of our students will go on to university after completing their HSC or IB Diploma at Ravenswood. It is likely, if they are international students or reside in regional NSW, that they will live in a college or share house. We aim to provide our students with experiences that will help make the transition to university as easy as can be. Good study patterns are encouraged and cooperative living habits are fostered.

We used designers experienced in the hospitality industry to redesign (page 25) our house to suit senior students. All common areas, no matter how small, have been creatively utilized for relaxation, and study. Our students are still attending school, but their experience in the residential college will help prepare them for the next stage of their studies once they leave school.

Going 1 to 1

The education our students receive at school should prepare them for life by fostering their development across the four domains of the academic, social, emotional and spiritual.

The focus at government level is on academic achievement that is principally defined by the performance of educational systems in standardized tests, while other eminent educators and commentators have contributed their views on many other issues such as the importance of fostering creativity or how best to motivate and engage students.

Regardless of the perspective taken by contributors to contemporary discussion a common theme is one of uncertainty around the kind of future for which we are preparing students. This uncertainty derives from the observable dramatic rate of change that is driven by technological innovation.

We are in the process of implementing the key aspects of our ICT Strategic Plan. Our vision is “to prepare our students for a global and digitally connected world in which technology is essential and ubiquitous.” In order to achieve this we are convinced that students need to have their own devices, such as a tablet or laptop, because they will most certainly need proficiency in digital, visual, informational, and textual literacy along with critical thinking and creative problem solving skills.

Gonski and beyond – improving Australian education

The move by the Federal Government to cut tertiary funding to fund the recommendations of the Gonski report is a short-sighted approach to education funding in Australia. The education system needs adequate funding from early childhood through to university. Our children should commence their educational journey with the guarantee that at every stage through which they pass – pre-school, primary, secondary, vocational and university – the education they receive is of a high standard. This is an educational journey that should continue throughout their lives with opportunities for further education as mature learners as well. It does not make sense to compromise the quality of one part of the education system by cutting its funds in order to give to another.

The measures announced by the Federal government do not result in additional funding for quality education in Australia. The contribution that education makes to the wellbeing of individual citizens, our economy and Australian society as a whole is widely acknowledged and proper resourcing across all phases of education is needed. According to OECD data the proportion of national wealth spent on educational institutions in Australia in 2008 was below the OECD average. Expenditure for all levels in Australia as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product expenditure is below the average and lower than a variety of countries including Korea and New Zealand.

The level of funding of education is not the sole or necessarily the most significant factor in determining the standard of education. A challenge to this premise is presented in the most recent Policy Brief of the Melbourne institute. Proper resourcing of education in schools is but one strand of the complex fabric that is a high standard education. Discussion of educational achievement in Australia demands a more complex response.

The impact of the quality of teaching on student achievement is significant. How can we ensure that teaching practice is of a high standard; that the curriculum guiding what happens in schools across the nation is not simply standardised, but enables the development of essential lifelong attributes such as analytical thinking and problem solving skills, creativity, the ability to work collaboratively – and independently.

Cuts in State Governments’ funding to the TAFE sector have already had a significant impact on the vocational educational sector. Cuts in federal government funding to universities will mean that universities will need to decide which courses, subjects and student services they can no longer afford to offer. Small, specialised courses may disappear, subject offerings in courses will be reduced resulting in a narrower range of electives available. Student services such as counselling, study skills and language support are also likely targets for cuts.

The Prime Minister argues that universities have a vested interest in increased funding of schools so that students are better prepared for university entry. It seems illogical to privilege one level of education at the expense of the other.

Engagement with students matters

The key to the success of our students is engagement – engagement of the students themselves in their learning and broad school life; the engagement of parents and the staff of the school.

When we demonstrate our commitment and co-operation in our work – whatever that is – it is a powerful message to our students that we care.

We are all working with a shared vision and mission: we are preparing our students to become adults equipped in all dimensions – academic, social emotional and spiritual -to make a positive contribution to the world. Some ways in which we support our students in achieving this:
• The quality of our interactions with them
• The environment that we create and share –physical, learning, spiritual
• The resources we bring, introduce and produce
• The quality of teaching and learning

Respectful, caring interactions with students are vital. At school we’ve been taking some advice from a child psychiatrist – in the context of gaining a better understanding of self- harm. He believes that anyone who deals with the students has a responsibility to get to know the person: “self- harm is evidence of failure of relational connection.” In all our interactions – as colleagues working together and with students- we should model and live care, respect. Students need us to take an interest in them and recognise them as individuals. Every student should have five adults they feel they could go to if they needed support.

As teachers we have a professional duty to students. Every child in our classes needs to be known and understood.To use a medical analogy, a doctor treats a patient regardless of the issues and poor habits the patient brings. We cannot renounce our obligation to our students of finding the way into engaging them in their learning; it’s not good enough to say a child is always away/is lazy/not bright and accept under-performance. We must avoid complacency and expect the best from all students, foster the best in them.

My plea is that we all think about the students “in the middle.” Who are the students you know? Is it the high achievers; the students needing support; those who nominate/are picked for special roles? What about all the students in “grey” in the middle? How successfully have we engaged them? Indeed how do we know that all of our students are engaged?

Relationships are vital to engagement. Cornelius-White wrote “in classes with person-centred teachers there is more engagement…and higher achievement outcomes.” He notes that most students who do not wish to come to school or who dislike school do so primarily because they dislike their teacher. His claim is that “to improve teacher-student relationships and reap their benefits, teachers should learn to facilitate the students’ development by demonstrating that they care for the learning of each student as a person. (cited by John Hattie in Visible Learning 2008).

As we prepare for the start of term our students are out there waiting to meet us – in various frames of mind, but certainly with high expectation. At his conference in Boston last July Alan November announced the “First Five Days” project that aims to prompt thinking about how to make the start of the school year the best it can be. I issue the challenge to teachers: what will be your students’ experience not only of the first five days of school, but every day?

Curiosity, confidence & compassion

Recently I was returning to Sydney by plane. In the three seats in front of me sat a young girl, her little brother and father. Across the aisle from them sat the mother. The boy looked to be about three years old and looked quite sweet – until he opened his mouth. He leant forward and looked over to his mother and said “Why are you sitting over there? You’re a loser mummy!”
His father said nothing.

What troubled me about this incident – apart from the fact that a child so young would take this attitude to his own mother – was the language of division and opposition that he so readily used. This perspective of the world, shaped by the idea that there are winners and losers and that the losers are to be jeered at, troubles me greatly; that there are sides to be taken and there is strength in numbers. A single instance such as this is disturbing on its own but it is not isolated and it is a broader social problem. I am one of many in our community concerned by the tenor of public discourse, such as the language of our politicians or prominent figures in the media, or the language used via social media.

Schools are often burdened, sometimes unreasonably, with the expectation that they can and should be educating students about all manner of subjects that sit outside the core academic curriculum, the latest example being childhood obesity. Nevertheless, it is right that school leaders and teachers reflect on how students’ perspectives are shaped by their experience of school. What kind of school is our school?

As we began the school year, our staff took time to think about what it is not only to be a Christian school, but specifically and uniquely, to be a Uniting Church School. The Rev Alistair Macrae, then President of the Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia, posed the question: “Is there a DNA which belongs to the Uniting Church in Australia which … is evident across the breadth of the life and work of this church?” And if so, would that “DNA” that be apparent in the life of a Uniting Church School. He suggested four key points: being inclusive, engaged in reconciliation; working for justice and peace through experiences that expose students to the call “to serve the least, the lost, the lonely and the little.”; having a multicultural perspective – seeing the world and appreciating difference; and expanding the horizons of students through international partnerships. Alistair Macrae expressed his wish that through education, which he defined as “the purposeful activity of love”, children develop three values: curiosity, confidence and compassion.

My hope is that all schools, whether secular or faith based, work to foster these values: curiosity – the love of learning; confidence – learning to accept and love ourselves; and compassion – the love of others.

Getting back to basics

When you have been involved in a major project over time it is possible for the imperatives that drove you to it in the first place to become indistinct in the sheer effort of bringing it off. I was forcefully reminded of these imperatives during today’s workshop on design thinking with Ewan McIntosh and Tom Barrett from NoTosh at the BLC 12 preconference programme. Our group worked through the question: “How might we play with the notion of time in our school” and one conclusion we agreed on is that it is crucial to have learning spaces that enable learning in a variety of contexts. Learning is enabled in different settings (classrooms, small meeting rooms, specialist areas) and spaces for that learning need to be available over different timescales (short lessons, long term display and thinking areas).

Since its striking structure emerged over the course of its construction the Mabel Fidler Building at Ravenswood School the focus has been on its appearance. Its selection for the AIA award, the Sulman medal, has drawn further discussion of this about its design. However, as I was reminded powerfully today, it was not primarily aesthetics that drove this building project but the extent to which it embodied ideas about education.

The Mabel Fidler Building puts the library, or learning resources centre, at the heart of the campus and at its main entrance. It has spaces that allow learning to take place in different settings suitable to the activities in which students are engaged. The key to the design of educational buildings is to allow choices to be made by students and teachers by providing a range of spaces. These may be the traditional classroom, areas for small group work, for self-directed leaning or for large group activities. The building enables a whole range of overlapping learning, recreational and physical activities in a structure that is essentially a shell, able to be adapted to other uses over time. Integration of technology into these spaces is also a vital aspect of this design.

The pace of change in education makes it very difficult to plan buildings that will continue to be useful to schools in the future. Who knows in twenty years time whether the school day will look the way it does today? Ideally we should be planning and building school facilities with a view to possible future uses that may as yet not have been contemplated.

Designing learning spaces

The recognition given to the design and construction of Ravenswood’s Mabel Fidler Building over the past week has been wonderful.

On Thursday evening, 28 July, Ravenswood School for Girls – BVN Architecture was awarded the Sulman Medal which is awarded annually by the NSW Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects for an architectural work of outstanding merit.

Structural engineers TTW and Ravenswood School for Girls also won a High Commendation Award for Large Buildings in the Australian Institute of Steel Awards.

While this public recognition is great to receive, most rewarding has been seeing our students using the building since its opening in August last year. It has fulfilled the school’s objectives of: creating flexible learning spaces; knitting the campus together and establishing a new entry point and hub for the school.

Key elements in the project
A school principal has few if any opportunities to lead a project that represents such an investment for the school and that has the potential to make such a difference. Looking back there were three key factors in the successful design of this project:

1. Time for planning, design and building
There were five years from the inception of this project, originally known as “the hub” to completion of the Mabel Fidler building.

2. Careful choice of the team to work on the project
We ran a limited design competition to select the architects for the building. In fact it was not specifically the design presented that led to our choice of architects but rather a combination of their willingness to listen to our ideas for the kinds of learning spaces we wanted and their understanding of good design for educational facilities.

Educators know how important collaboration is to learning for our students. Finding a team of architects who listened to us and worked closely and collaboratively with us was vital.

We were very lucky that our team included a member of school council, an architect, who gave substantially of her time and brought expertise and passion to the project.

3. Research into the design of learning spaces
It is really useful to read about other projects, preferably to visit completed buildings or even just to look at images of these.
The Edutopia website was initially a great resource
Today information about design of spaces and learning abounds. The CEFPI website is a good place to start:

It is an exciting and changing educational landscape that we are living in. As we plan buildings today we must be mindful of the impact our decisions will have on students and teachers in the future. Flexibility in design, ensuring technological capability and creating spaces that enable teachers and students to choose the space best suited for particular learning activities are all part of the process of good school design.