Choosing an independent school in NSW

Q&A with Geoff Newcombe, Chief Executive of the Association of Independent Schools of NSW

What can you tell me about the Association of Independent Schools of NSW (AISNSW)?
The association was established in 1967 by a group of independent schools that understood the benefits of working together on the numerous things they had in common. As the peak body for independent schools in NSW, the association’s main functions include the provision of high quality support and services to its members and advocating for independent schools to governments and the community. AISNSW also works closely with the government and Catholic school sectors on a wide range of education matters.

What services does AISNSW provide and how are these funded?
AISNSW provides a wide range of services to member schools such as professional learning for teachers and school leaders, advice and assistance in employment relations, compliance, governance, child protection, teacher accreditation, educational research and data services, school registration and assistance in the education of students with additional needs. These are funded largely through member subscriptions and fees for some services.

How did you personally come to be involved and can you describe a typical day at AISNSW?
I was a science and maths teacher before becoming a bursar and Head in a number of independent schools. In the late 1990s I accepted a position with the association where I had oversight of school governance and industrial relations services, then was appointed executive director (now chief executive) in 2005. My typical day involves an early start, internal meetings with staff, external meetings with key stakeholders, liaising with government and politicians at the state and federal level to represent the needs of the sector, and working with principals and members of school boards. My role also involves a considerable amount of travel within NSW and interstate.

How does NSW’s independent school sector look?
There are more than 480 independent schools in NSW enrolling over 200,000 students which reflect the full diversity of the community. These schools serve low to high socio-economic communities, cater for many different faith backgrounds and educational philosophies, and vary greatly in size from very small country schools to large metropolitan schools. Almost half the independent schools in NSW enrol fewer than 200 students and 70 per cent charge tuition fees of less than $10,000 per year. Currently, NSW is experiencing very high levels of population growth and there are significant challenges for the sector in providing the educational infrastructure needed to accommodate the additional students. The sector continues to perform well academically while also maintaining a strong focus on pastoral care and ensuring students are given the opportunity to achieve their potential.

Why do people tend to choose independent schools when considering their options?
School choice surveys consistently show that parents are looking for a school that provides a good level of behavioural and academic discipline, offers high quality teaching and learning and is a good fit for their child in terms of academic ability and interests. Finding a school with a strong focus on pastoral care and where the values align closely with those of the family are also important considerations, as well as having a good choice of extra-curricular activities such as sport, music or arts.

If a new parent asked you for advice on choosing the best school for their child, how would you respond?
The single most important consideration is that the school is able to meet the child’s individual needs. Parents should list the essential things they’re looking for in a school, based on what they feel offers the best environment for their child. This process should also take into account things such as school size, location, cost and how closely the school’s values align with those of the family. You can then identify schools that best satisfy your criteria, narrow down the options and arrange to visit each school under consideration. Ask to meet the principal, attend an open day and speak to other parents with children at the school.

What are the things that have the most impact on your work?
School education is an area of constant change because of political, academic and social influences and the critical role education plays in society. As a result, any decisions made by governments that involve school funding, curriculum, the teaching profession and the welfare of children, to name just a few, have a direct and often sustained impact on the work of the association as we seek to support member schools to deliver high quality education services. Increasingly we’re seeing an impact on our work from having a more globalised perspective on education and understanding what we need in order to continually improve our model of schooling. We need to make sure we know what the rest of the world is doing, identify what we can learn, adapt and implement from other systems and methods, and look to drive innovation and creativity in the classroom and beyond. Our role is to not only deliver services focused on what our members ask for, but we also need to reduce or smooth out the impacts of all manner of changes in our education practices.

Does AISNSW have any significant events planned for 2019?
In the first five months there will be a state and federal election, with a change of government quite possible in both cases. Inevitably that will result in changes of some description, including potential changes of ministers along with different perspectives on a range of policy areas in education. In NSW the government will release a report on its review of the curriculum which promises to stir up the existing school framework, plus the Commonwealth Government will settle the processes for calculating funding of non-government schools based on the personal income tax records of parents whose children attend a non-government school. These events have the potential to create massive change in the sector.

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