And in the end there will only be Finland.

Intermittently, in the papers and on radio, is the discussion about the existence of independent schools. Recently David Gillespie has written a book called Free Schools, encouraging our community to opt for public education; Marrion Maddox has written a book called Taking God to School, questioning the use of public monies to fund religiously based education; and in the Sydney Morning Herald Elizabeth Farrelly called for an end to independent education perse.

As far as I can see, the issues are financial, social and religious.

Financial

A common claim is that independent schools ‘suck the marrow’ out of education funding.  Consider these figures from Sydney and Armidale. They are publically available on the MySchool website.

                Sydney

A well established girls’ school in the inner west of Sydney receives about $4600 per student from all government sources.  A secondary school in the same region in the public sector receives about $10150 per student. A primary school receives about $7600 on average per student. Thus, every student who leaves the independent school to attend a local government school in costs the taxpayer between $3000 and $6500.

                Armidale

Rural schools receive more government funding than city schools. Thus a school like PLC Armidale receives about $7100 per student in government funding, whereas a local public school receives about $14400 per student.

ISCA estimates that if every independent school closed tomorrow, the cost would be $4 billion in recurrent funding plus the cost of building/purchasing numerous facilities to house all of the students.

Parents at Independent Schools are taxpayers. It is reasonable that each taxpayer should be able to have some of their taxes contributing to their own child’s education. Some very rich people select public schools. The system does not ask these people to contribute more to the education of everyone, but only those that select non-government schools. Is this fair?

Elizabeth Farrelly’s response to this on public debate websites is that it would be worth $4 billion to put all students together. This is a social argument.

Social

The basic argument is that it would be best practice for our nation to have all children from all social backgrounds together. Imagine what our country would look like if we did this strictly – and if we didn’t do it strictly, why do it at all? When I was in UK in the public universities system I visited numerous government schools. The best government schools there still have limited catchment areas. House prices around these schools have increased substantially, meaning that a significant inequity in the student populations results. In free societies we are rightly loathe to limit people’s choices in regard to their children. The type of ‘medicine’ we would need to take to bring about Farrelly’s goal would be very hard to swallow and people would constantly undermine it. It would require a centralised system wielding significant powers to make it work.

Further, it assumes that everyone wants the same philosophical or religious base to their education. There are no schools that are neutral in regard to philosophy. If we take away religious bases, we still have secular ideologies. This brings us to religious arguments.

Religious

The Finnish education system has some strong positives including the respect paid to teachers. It doesn’t, however, take the holistic approach we take.

If the end goal is to achieve a universally applied singular system, I believe we are in deep trouble. I love the fact that Australia has lots of different schools that have emerged from different religious and philosophical bases. I am a strong supporter of Christian frameworks for education. I believe, at their best, they offer an education that is much broader and deeper than the type of approach taken in Finland. Yet, I respect that my colleagues at Steiner and Jewish schools have different models. I do love, as an aside, the emphasis on dialogue around the Old Testament at some Jewish school. As I engage as a principal with different systems I am enriched.

I am a firm believer in the model of education we are developing at PLC Armidale and PLC Sydney, both its theological/ philosophical basis and its practice, yet I would be troubled if suddenly our model became the only show in town. We need a variety of types of schools all seeking to educate well.

How sad if, in the end, there only was Finland.

The freedom to fail

The quote on the arm of Australian Open winner Stan Wawrinka was written by the absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett. It reads:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Much wiser minds than mine have analysed its wit, resonance and dissonance.

I have been thinking more mundanely about its relevance to teachers and parents as new students commence their journeys at school. Teachers have, in the main, planned assiduously to enable these new students to succeed. In the majority of cases schools have a broad range of programs ready, and parents are very supportive at home.

Yet there is a sense in which all of us could trick ourselves into believing that if everything is put in just the right order, the result will be perfect. The child will learn according to the plan and will emerge confident and accomplished.

Like Goldilocks’ porridge they will be ‘just right’.

The critical ingredient that this recipe does not include is the will of the child.

I am sure that I am not the only principal who is working hard to establish… a tone in their school… a sense of openness towards the idea … a community agreement… that the child must be allowed to fail in order to really enable them to succeed.

They must be permitted to take risks. They must be allowed to solve problems for themselves. They must be allowed to be disappointed.

When we allow these skills to be developed, we show that we trust our children. We believe that they have the capacity to grow, to move from dependence to interdependence.

This is definitely not an excuse for the lazy teacher or the school that doesn’t manage its learning processes well. We need committed teachers and plenty of opportunities to be inspired.

Yet the act of sending a child to school is a conscious act of trust. The parent who decides the primary way to manage their child’s relationship with the school is to watch and intervene constantly is not allowing their child to feel that they can stand back up again when they fail. At some point in their life, they are going to fail. And they will need to know how to stand back up again.

A fellow principal from Hong Kong showed me once the apartment from which a parent in her school watched through a telescope the events of her child’s class. The phone rang often to inform the principal of what was happening in the classroom.

This is not to say that parents should not contact their child’s school. Like many, I constantly encourage parents to form good relationships with staff and each other. Effective communication really really matters. Yet if the primary sort of communication revolves around the management of the day to day milieu that the child should be responsible for, it might be time for a rethink.

Just this week in the media there have been stories of gold medal winning Australians who are struggling to cope with the change from being in the spotlight and cheered at every point to being someone ordinary, their fifteen minutes of fame supposedly over. Fame or a renowned success does not equip a person for life.

It is definitely the case that children need to be encouraged and recognised. They also require benign neglect. They need to be OK with life’s boring bits.

Most parents and teachers that I know want to build resilient young people who will take a deep breath when life has a bump. They might feel low, shed a few tears, even say they ‘don’t want to go to school’ but they have the capacity to grow stronger through the circumstance. As one very wise parent told me this week – the best skill a child can develop is the skill to push up off the bottom.

So Mr Wawrinka, as you held the trophy high this January, you passed on a good message to us all. C.S. Lewis wrote something similar some sixty years ago:

No amount of falls will really undo us if we keep on picking ourselves up each time. We shall of course be very muddy and tattered children by the time we reach home. But the bathrooms are all ready, the towels put out, and the clean clothes are in the airing cupboard. The only fatal thing is to lose one’s temper and give it up.

Or, perhaps, to not allow the child to fall over in the first place…

Thank you Mr Black

In Year 7 I had two English teachers. One took my class for my regular lessons and the other had us once a fortnight for ‘Reading’. Mr Black.

Mr Black had us rule up a 48 page Olympic Stripe exercise book with the headings: ‘Number’, ‘Author’, ‘Title’, ‘Genre’ and ‘Mark /10’. In the back we listed the ‘Book of the Year’ and ‘The most influential authors’.

In Year 6 I had read one book. In Year 7 I read 34. I still have the exercise book and I still, as a fifty-two year old, keep within it an updated list of every book I read. 

Mr Black reinvigorated my reading. My mother had read extensively to me as a child, but when I was in later primary school books were seen as the pariah gifts. Three years later I was asking for them for every birthday and Christmas.

One effective way to describe a good education is to say that it consists of ‘three good teachers in a row’, that is, for three consecutive years to have teachers who know and care for their students, know their subjects, differentiate the curriculum and connect it to the real world. 

Many teachers, myself included, would also add that it is important to be reflective. This little exercise book enables me to look back over my life and to remember the influences on me. I can see the pattern of my reading and thinking. And, for me, it gave my reading a discipline. When there were other distractions, I kept on reading.

Mr Black gave me an excellent education in reading in just one lesson per fortnight.

When I moved to Zimbabwe and entered my classroom for the first time, I found three words left by my predecessor on the blackboard: Read and Think.

Now, twenty years later, in an era of ipads and interactive whiteboards, one might think that education has new priorities. There are many new stimulations and these are mostly helpful, but the basis of an education in the humanities is still read and think.

So thank you Mr Black.

Whatever happened to the Arab Spring?

Australian politicians are concerned that our ranking in education is slipping.

PISA tests measure aspects of numeracy and literacy.

These are, of course, very important, but there is an other important element that I would like to hear being discussed more often. We need students who can think. And to think, they need to have access to a broad range of views on a matter.

I have just finished reading an excellent book by Platinga, Thompson and Lundberg called An Introduction to Christian Theology. I particularly enjoyed its structure. It covered the primary topics, then relayed a narrative that surveyed the range of viewpoints on Christian theology across history.

It was a survey.

After reading it I gained a broad understanding of the history of thought about theology in the major Christian churches. The authors provided their own editorial comment from time to time. This was clearly marked, making it obvious that they were entering into editorial voice.

There are voices in the Australian media that identify themselves as celebrating diversity or providing a comprehensive coverage.

Yet I rarely find anything approaching a thorough survey.

Consider for a moment the term ‘Arab Spring’. It was a very popular catch-phrase in 2011-12. Revolutions in North Africa were depicted primarily as people’s movements. Oppressive dictators were apparently being overthrown by popular movements with democratic ideals. Now it is obvious that the rebel groups had a wide range of motives. There were also numerous minority groups who were caught in the cross-fire. It is interesting how little the phrase ‘Arab Spring’ is used today. The term suggested a Hegelian inevitability about democracy. If the coverage had looked at the whole picture, the mainstream media wouldn’t have created a easy to digest picture of what was happening. It is undeniable that there were democratic forces: I am saying the picture was far more complex.

I noticed the size of this shift whilst listening to the radio this morning. I heard a BBC perspective on Syria that took the point of view of a citizen who supports the current regime and who described the popular movement as terrorism. What surprised me was not the words of the interviewee, but those of the reporter. Far from this being an ‘Arab Spring’ it was depicted as an opportunity for ideologues to bring their own agendas. The reporter was no longer celebrating people power but was despairing about chaos.

I don’t know all of the motivations for unseating Gaddafi, nor the range of political viewpoints in Egypt or Syria or Tunisia, but I know enough to realise there were a significant range of views. I have heard in local meetings in Sydney representatives from the Christian churches in Syria and Egypt speak and they each provided insights that I have only heard glimpses of on late night religious programs on the ABC. As of about mid 2013 the BBC started telling these stories as part of mainstream reporting, but the references on the ABC mainstream are rare.

Why doesn’t a public broadcaster give time to different views?

I long for the time when simplistic progress metaphors don’t guide the structure of science spots on ABC radio, or when easy catch phrases like ‘Arab Spring’ don’t guide our thinking in political affairs.

I recognise that the ABC does provide access to different voices. My concern is that there is rarely a survey across the full range of views. Either one voice is presented as the commentator or two groups are set up as binary opponents. Shows like Q & A are a grab bag of quips and short points – they are not set up to provide a thorough understanding.

Schools are places that can make a difference. We have more time than the media, and it is our task to provide depth and breadth in reading. If we alert senior students to the range of viewpoints that are on offer in regard to an issue of history or science or language, and if we are transparent about our own presuppositions, then students will have a chance to really be accomplished in developing an understanding of matters that affect their citizenship of this planet.

Three small words about life

These are the reflections of a parent who has raised three daughters, and a principal who has led two schools. I am sure there are psychologists who agree with me, and probably some that don’t, but I don’t claim to be an authority on such matters. At my schools I have always worked closely with professionals when working out how to assist an individual with an individual issue. Better to refer to a psychologist when responding to a particular child’s circumstances. These are general reflections on parenting and the creation of a tone in schooling.

Security

Significance 

Challenge

Like almost every parent, my wife and I have discussed our views on raising our own children and educating all children many times.

We have found these three words very helpful.

We have found that children need to be secure in order to learn: in their homes and in their relationships. When children go on camp one of the first things they want to do is to see where they are sleeping. Further, some of the nervous energy that exists before meal times on camp is because they are wondering if they are going to enjoy the meal. Once they find their bed and see their plate – even if it doesn’t meet all of their hopes – they can begin to accept their lot. Children play an active part in developing their own security. Adults can assist them by ensuring their homes are safe and their classrooms are warm and welcoming. Once safe, they can start to learn.

And they need to find a place to be significant. It doesn’t have to involve public recognition – some children avoid this. I think they need an area of confidence. It might be in an obvious area like music or sport, or it could be in their capacity to help friends work out their difficulties or in keeping their belongings in good order. It might be in their ability to train their dog, or to assist in mundane chores. Of course it really helps if they feel someone notices them. The smile of a parent, and of a teacher is a powerful thing.

Children also need challenge. If they are just comfortably secure and significant, they might not stretch themselves. How important it is to learn to overcome obstacles, and to develop the confidence to do so without an adult present. This process takes years, but it is a key area for learning. Life’s bumps are important for the child’s growth. It is my experience that the parent who constantly rescues the child disempowers her. The child can work out a large number of situations if she is in good conversation with others. A little encouragement, some respectful adult time, and a a decision to trust go a long way.

Of course no one benefits from bullying. Targeted attempts to cause someone who is less powerful to feel pain are very destructive.

And yet, we can benefit from conflict. In conflict, the adversaries are roughly equal in influence, and have approximately equal capacity to cause each other some pain. Children can learn to negotiate what is important from what is not. They can develop empathy. Like one of the children in Judith Wright’s story ‘The Ant lion’, they can even develop a healthy disrespect for their own capacity to cause pain to others.

And it is unwise in my view to call conflict, bullying. It is my experience that almost all children come into conflict with their friends or associates at some point. Sometimes other children treat my children poorly, and sometimes my children treat others poorly. They usually ‘bump around’ and work it out. Parents who help their children to develop a conscience and a sense of compassion towards others can make these experiences into character-building moments. Yet, if this occasional conflict is labelled bullying by an over-protective parent, the power balance in the relationship shifts. A child who could have worked out the issue herself is suddenly viewed as someone who has little capacity to solve her own problems.

Parents need great wisdom here. They need to find out the facts when their child is hurting. No parent should leave his child in a situation where he is bullied. Yet we need not jump straight to the conclusion that it is bullying.

Academic challenge engages the child with learning. There is so much to know and we are all just tiny specks trying to understand how things work. After years and years of study I know so very little, yet I am challenged to keep on learning.

If there is challenge in the classroom, we learn to try, to strive. To rephrase C S Lewis: If learning was a race, it would matter not how many times we fell over, but it would matter that we kept on getting up and started running again.

 

Silver! Silver! Silver!

Are there any lessons for educators from the 2012 London Olympics?

Our media has built up the expectation that certain swimmers and athletes will win gold and bring ‘glory’ to our nation. Perhaps they are only reflecting our desires. Perhaps the old saying ‘We get the politicians we deserve’ should be reworded to say ‘We get the media we deserve’.

We hear interviews with young sports people immediately after an event. After many years of dedicated training, an astonishing performance in their field of endeavour to even reach the Olympics, we hear them define the moment via an expression of disappointment at not achieving the gold medal. Personally, I don’t really want to hear them being asked how they feel immediately after they exit the pool, track or field. Let them have time to compose themselves. Let them talk to their coach, their family and friends first.

I do think that there are issues that this raises for us in schools. Our goals include enabling each child who enters our gates to flourish and to leave feeling that they can make a contribution to the society. We hope they will recognise that sporting endeavour is not really about personal or national glory, but a type of gift to other people. They do their best, and in the act, encourage us to do ours. They show what the human mind and body can achieve. They collectively create a type of drama that brings interest, and perhaps joy. They make us feel part of something bigger.

And if they don’t win, that’s OK. Somebody else did. Another family has something to celebrate. Another community has a ‘moment in the sun’. We celebrate our own successes and we are happy that others have successes to celebrate too.

It confirms for me the idea that magnanimity is such an important thing to aspire towards in our schools. It is defined by wikipedia as being ‘of great mind and heart.’ If we have it we can freely say ‘Silver! Silver! Silver!’ or ‘You inspired us with your efforts!’ with great gusto. Thanks Olympians for your contribution to who we are.

 

Some thoughts about interacting with the Media

Recently PLC Sydney held its annual Journalism Forum. We were honoured to have five highly regarded journalists talk with our students about issues connected to ethics and the media.

Our guests spoke purposefully about how they seek to report honestly in order to support a strong democracy. They seek a range of perspectives and try to uncover the key issues of public interest. They also spoke openly about the challenge this presents. I am very grateful for their input: it was a very worthwhile afternoon.

In my six years as a principal I have been asked on only a few occasions to make a comment about a matter related to education. I have sought to answer the questions directly and simply, considering it important that a variety of voices is heard in relation to education. On occasion, when the topic has been appropriate, a journalist has interviewed staff or students.

I am pleased to report that in each of my interactions with the ABC the reporting has been very accurate. When we put on the play Cyberbile, about the issue of bullying on-line in Australian schools, I thought that the ABC handled the interviews with staff and students with great professionalism. Elizabeth Jackson provided a report that included our school alongside a number of others. Schools from different sectors had their approaches canvassed. This is a difficult issue for our society and it was covered with thought and depth.

Recently I was interviewed by the Sydney Morning Herald regarding the multicultural nature of independent schools. The theme of the final article was about supposed ‘white flight’ from public to independent schools. I spoke for ten minutes to the journalist and the key phrase that was attributed to me in the paper was that this was an ‘invisible question’ at PLC Sydney. PLC Sydney is a school with a rich cultural diversity and the point I made consistently through the interview was that it seemed to me that our school has students from a large number of heritages who are getting on very well.  I believe I did use the word ‘invisible’, but I think the final article cleverly altered my use of the term to appear ambiguous, suggesting that I might be ignoring a problem within the school as much as not having an issue at all. This was not the tone of my comments.

I wrote an article in response. It is a blog on this site (Everyone can share the meal).  I am  thankful that it was printed. Interestingly it was printed verbatim, except for one word. I referred to the earlier Herald article by stating: “Andrew Stevenson’s recent piece in The Sydney Morning Herald, The White Bread Playground , commented on the lack of ethnic diversity in some independent schools.” but an editor at The Herald changed it to say “Andrew Stevenson’s recent piece in The Sydney Morning Herald, The White Bread Playground , revealed the lack of ethnic diversity in some independent schools.” It is a subtle but important change. What is troubling to me is that the article is attributed to me. I don’t think that The Herald ‘revealed’ anything. They have their view and that’s fine, but I don’t share it.

This is minor is comparison to the practices of an employee from The Sunday Telegraph. The Telegraph ran  articles over a few weeks about architecture in schools. An ex-student contacted me to ask if she could complete a piece on The Macindoe Research Centre, finished in 2010 in my predecessor, Dr. William McKeith’s time. It is a fabulous building. Given her positive connection with the college and the tone of the earlier articles, I agreed. I met her and we talked for 25 minutes about the Research Centre and its uses in the school. I then showed her the building. Whilst I was distracted talking with her a photographer asked some students to hold some cups and took a photo of them in front of the cafe. The next Sunday the newspaper ran an article on private school students drinking too much coffee.

We actually don’t sell much coffee and the story was based on one question asked of an employee of the cafe. Their answer was nondescript.

I was duped.

Needless to say I won’t be welcoming back The Sunday Telegraph in a hurry.

That’s a shame really. I don’t mind if someone wishes to say that they disagree with a model of schooling, or if they want to ask challenging questions about how we improve the ways that we help children to learn. This is the media’s role. I applaud those journalists who engage with schools honestly, seeking to present a viewpoint or to investigate a matter.

I just think that the editors and journalists who don’t care about the integrity of the people they interview are damaging the trust on which democracies rely.

I am pleased our guests held up a flag for integrity in journalism. They contributed much to the education of the students at PLC Sydney – much more than some editors are contributing to the public debate about education.

On the idea of intellectual virtues

When I made an attempt at coaching under 9’s cricket I tried to teach the boys a front-foot defensive position. It was a basic stance that they would take to certain deliveries. It provided the platform for them later developing a range of attacking and defensive shots.

As a principal I believe that it is my baseline Christian beliefs and convictions that help me the most in my role.

I have found that a very positive approach to learning is to see the student as a thinking, choosing, feeling person who is receiving an education for the benefit of their community.  They will gain much. Their family will be proud. But the real reason is so that they can contribute to people they don’t even know.

Whatever examination boards and the media do, I would like to suggest that it is time for schools to shift the focus of their rhetoric away from talk of ranks and marks to the virtues of learning. We have too many teenagers with high anxiety levels. They are searching for top marks, top bodies, top popularity on social media sites. They will never be good enough.

I think that Associate Professor of Philosophy at  Wheaton College, USA, W. Jay Wood offers a better structure for unpacking the qualities young people might strive to acquire.  He writes of qualities that are within everyone’s reach.  He writes of virtues connected to the acquisition of beliefs and ideas, their maintenance, their communication, and their application to concrete problems and situations. Those connected to acquisition include curiosity, teachableness, love of truth, intellectual honesty and tenacity. We want learners to be attentive and observant. It is also important for them to be circumspect, recognising that the learning one does is not complete and that knowledge is a difficult thing to acquire. ‘We see but through a glass darkly’, said the apostle Paul. The learner also requires persistence. These are the virtues that motivate us to learn.

Of course, once we gain some knowledge we develop our own ideas and those ideas are tested by others. To maintain our attitude to learning we require dialectical skills to be able to defend our views, developing an internal voice and an external expression of our ideas. This includes the capacity to express ourselves orally and in writing. The intellectual virtues overlap with personal virtues at this point. We need intellectual honesty so that we don’t become sophists – people who simply make a weaker argument sound stronger. Intellectual honesty allows us to avoid the danger of relinquishing a belief too easily – at the first sign of a storm – or of holding onto an unreasonable belief too stubbornly, thus becoming dogmatic.

The person who is mature in their views can teach others. They develop pedagogical virtues, or virtues connected to how they communicate. They are honest in their report and thorough. They are committed to the learning process and disciplined in their thinking. The ability to administer, to organise, to foresee issues, to problem solve and to strategise are all virtues as they are gifts utilised for the good of others.

Finally, there are virtues connected to the application of knowledge.  I hope students will ask moral and ethical questions and not simply seek to acquire knowledge as a type of power. I want them to ask ‘should we’ as well as ‘could we’. We should not underestimate as a society how much we prize the virtue of attentiveness. Spouses expect it of each other, parents expect it of children, teachers expect it of students. Citizens expect it of politicians and patients of doctors. I am sure I am not alone in believing educators would do well to frame knowledge as being an aspect of personhood and not as a capacity one uses simply  to gain power and influence.

All learning, according to this model, is about learning how to love. I learn to provide for my family, to think also of the good of my neighbour, to contribute something to my society, to possibly play a part in a community beyond my own, to be a good steward of the natural environment. I learn to be resilient when life is tough, to problem solve, to strive for integrity.

Stated like this I understand how these sound like lofty ideals, but I wonder if I simply seek to be attentive the next time someone speaks to me, or curious the next time I meet someone if I am not building this notion one interaction at a time.

 

Everyone can share the meal: valuing cultural diversity in schools

Andrew Stevenson’s recent piece in The Sydney Morning Herald, The White Bread Playground , commented on the lack of ethnic diversity in some independent schools.

As the principal of an independent school that has a tremendous diversity of culture and languages, I ask myself questions about how we are measuring up not only in the area of welcoming students from diverse backgrounds to our school, but in providing them with equal access to all that the school offers. I know my colleagues across the sectors ask themselves similar questions. I note below some indicators and ideas from PLC Sydney: others will have programs and practices that could add much wisdom to this topic.

One way of testing if we give a voice to the variety of cultures in our schools is if the students of the school pay no heed to cultural background when they are selecting their student leaders. In a student election we have a real test of staff and student attitudes. The stakes are high and the outcome provides an indication of what our community is really thinking. It was therefore very heartening for us at PLC Sydney that the five students with the most votes for 2013 came from five different backgrounds: Southern European (Captain),  Pacific Islander, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Anglo-Saxon. We will keep watching this indicator.

A second measure is whether or not students join together in cross-cultural groups in the playground. I observe at PLC Sydney that the majority of social groups are mixed but that some are homogenous. It is not productive to socially manufacture friendship groups, but, like many schools, we do provide students with opportunities and encouragement to get to know students from other backgrounds. The sport and co-curricular programs are a very helpful means of breaking down barriers.

A third measure is if students from different cultures are achieving excellence. The various honour boards, lists of achievements, or recognition assemblies should reveal names from a variety of backgrounds. I am pleased that ours do.

A fourth measure is parental involvement. Do the parents from different cultural backgrounds feel welcome to contribute to the school? It is here that the leadership of the Parents and Friends Association plays an important role. At our recent Fair and Open Day our convener, Cameron Townshend, discovered that parents from one cultural background were not volunteering. He asked some questions and found out that some of the parents were nervous that their level of English might embarass them. He found a confident parent from this background and she organised a stall where they could all use their native language and she would provide the expertise in English when required.

It is also the case that we don’t have to have students mixing cross-culturally at every point. In our Boarding School we have a diverse population, with students from Rural NSW, ex-patriate families across the globe, international students and some Sydney-siders who live-in at school in their final years. These groups get on well together in the Boarding House. Sometimes, however,  they want to get together with other students who speak their language and think about home.  Sometimes the rural students make close friends with others who love life on a farm. It is important to allow students to develop deep friendships with people who share their interests.

One important aspect of cultural diversity is the one highlighted by Andrew Stevenson: enrolment. It is also important to note that school communities create a cohesive school climate by making a multitude of smaller choices.

The Value of Learning

It is a real privilege to talk with parents about how they are seeking to raise their children. Almost all parents I meet are seeking to raise responsible, considerate and honest young people. They want them to enjoy learning and to do their best at school.

I hear from parents who have thought very carefully about everything from reading to dating. One of the reflections I think I am able to make with some evidence-base is in how, in general,  their methods work. I admit that these are anecdotal observations, influenced by my own beliefs about parenting, but I believe I can see some patterns. As a principal of a school of over 1200 girls, who has previously been principal of a co-educational school of about 940 students, I offer these thoughts.

I worry about parents of young children who set up a pattern of extrinsic reward to encourage their children to go well at school. It is usually built around a framework that says: “If you do well in ‘x’, I will reward you with ‘y'”. I admit that in the early years it appears to work.  It can be very motivating, and the child has a powerful boast to use at school about how much their parents provide for them. I observe, however, that it is not a good long term strategy.

Firstly, it places the child in a position of power that is not helpful later on. The subliminal message is that the child has power over the parents’ responses. For the period of time that the child really values the reward, the system may work. When the child becomes a teenager and wants to have something that she can use to differentiate herself from her parents, the reward system is an obvious target. Teenagers don’t like to feel manipulated. If they feel that their school work is connected to a system that is trying to control them, I have seen them stop trying at school as a way of diminishing the power of their parents.

Secondly, it undervalues learning. A really important message that we should be sending as parents is that an education is better than toys or holidays or a new item of clothing. Learning is its own reward. Reading enriches your life. Mathematics helps you understand both the universe and how to do things. Science is the basis of a healthy body and a healthy environment. We would not think it necessary to reward our children if they won a treasure hunt. The treasure is of value in itself. If we continually in subtle and obvious ways, by our own discussion about some of life’s big questions (and even its little ones), and by our joy in our children’s learning, express the idea that the best thing we can give our children is an education, they will learn to value it.

Thirdly, in the end we want our children to own their education. Today at PLC Sydney we celebrated the students who achieved excellence in the 2011 Higher School Certificate. What a joy to celebrate with so many past-students! As I looked across the faces of the young women as they posed for the group photograph, I thought: “They are all intrinsically motivated. They have all learned how to learn.” Their parents supported them and encouraged them, they agonised with them and celebrated with them. I am sure they would say that they made mistakes. I see, however, that they regarded their child’s education as her own. And it has paid off.

It is a difficult thing to hand over an education to a child. They will almost certainly not treat it correctly from time to time. Yet they will grow confident because of the trust their parents and their teachers place in them. If they stumble, it can build resilience. If they struggle, it can build patience. When they succeed they will have a deep satisfaction.

I watch the dynamics of this process occur every day…