Some thoughts on scholarships

A key element in the selective schools model of my schooling in the 1970s was to put students who scored well on an IQ test together. My memory of my teenage years is that the emphasis of my school was on student intelligence rather than the role of effective teaching. Learning was ‘caught’ more than it was ‘taught’. I had some excellent teachers but I also had classes where the teacher had a very laissez-faire attitude to lesson preparation.

Today, of course, we really value the role of the teacher. Rightly so. It one of the most important factors in education. Hattie tells us this. Yet Hattie tells us what students bring to the classroom is also essential.

The conversations between students were a key aspect of my school life. Though we didn’t have neat categories, and though our conversations no doubt shed more heat than light, debates raged about science, language, theology and philosophy. There was a strong sense of curiosity in the cohort.

Scholarship programs support the learning culture of independent schools. These days we are far more deliberate about the essential role of excellent teaching practices in the classroom, but student culture is recognised as vitally important. The theory behind  such a program is to develop a very competent and capable junior school cohort, then further strengthen it in year 7 by adding some thinking and hard-working students. It is also wonderful to offer an opportunity to a family that might not be able to afford the school fees. School foundations do a great job supporting programs to enable the funding of such programs. Of course the scholarships are equally open to current students and are decided by an objective measure. The point is to create a supportive and challenging environment, where there is a critical mass of students who really want to learn. If you then add a dedicated teaching staff you can create a school where academic virtues like curiosity, self-discipline, tenacity and integrity thrive and clashes about power are diminished. It is my experience that it works.

When I am asked how PLC Sydney has achieved excellent academic results over such a long period I would count the scholarship program as a factor alongside excellent teaching, supportive parents, excellent modelling of life-long learning at home and school, and a rich array of opportunities to motivate students and to help them see learning as being about the real world.

Aside from academic scholarships, schools like PLC Sydney offer a small number of scholarships in areas like music and boarding. More recently we have added all-rounder and indigenous scholarships.

For me the all-rounder scholarship is an experiment. The great majority of academic scholarship recipients under the traditional system do contribute greatly to the learning of others. Each year though there are some recipients who are in the habit of learning on their own. I have wondered if it isn’t better to have a student whose academic results are still excellent but who also has an excellent record of learning by example, who has proven themselves in a range of endeavours, and/or who has been identified as a person who contributes strongly to others. The scholarship program must support the learning of the whole school, not just the individual recipient. I ask myself: How do I create a system that inspires excellence more broadly?

College Councils almost always set limits on the total number of sibling discounts and scholarships on offer. Thus, in each of the last two years I have used two of what were previously academic scholarships to support a new Principal’s Scholarship of Excellence. It is early days, but I am very pleased by the impact the recipients are having. I need a school of teachers and students who all are committed to taking on the challenge of learning, who are resilient in character, and who know that the mantra: ‘How you practice is how you play’ is true.

If an ex-student says something like: “I didn’t receive a scholarship whilst at school, but I was inspired to pursue my chosen field with passion. I was inspired by my teachers and by the other students to do my best and my school has really helped me to become an active and contributing citizen”, then the small cost of a scholarship program, assisted as it is by the generosity of certain members of the community, and taken alongside everything else the school offers, will have proven to have been most worthwhile.