Principally Speaking: Barker College

Phillip Heath AM, Head of Barker College in Sydney, speaks with WhichSchool? Magazine about how the school is preparing its students for the world of tomorrow.

How does the school’s philosophy and ethos guide it today?
Philosophy and ethos is central to creating a school’s culture; and culture is that which occurs without anybody imposing or forcing an attitude of mind or behaviour. Culture is the atmosphere, it is the climate, it’s the air you breathe, and ethos expresses itself in the culture. You need to know what you believe and believe in a sense of purpose in the school in order to create a culture. And the same is true for the reverse. If you wish to reform or shift a culture, you have to start with ethos and belief. This is the starting point for a school’s identity.

How does Barker College differ from other schools?
Most schools do things mostly the same, most of the time. All revert back to that because it’s safe. The literature says about 80 per cent of what all schools do is the same. Schools should search out the 20 per cent of what makes them unique.

We are blessed in this country to have so many great schools. The purpose, heritage and intent of these schools often resembles each other, so parents would want to find the point of difference.

There are two distinct differences at Barker College. One is that it’s a school that deliberately and intentionally allows people to thrive in a holistic sense – emotionally, physiologically, physically and academically. It’s about all of those things that form together to make a fully formed human being.

The second thing is that we have a firm co-educational identity and a firm expression of that. It’s a view that everybody can find a place and thrive irrespective of interests, skillset or capacity and be committed to doing that in a way that brings young men and young women together for the proper expression of human interaction and identity.

In what ways has Barker College evolved since you joined the school in 2014?
Building on nearly 130 years of heritage, the school has grown in two areas. Firstly, there is our Indigenous education outreach program, which goes beyond boarding and into establishing Aboriginal schools in partnership with Aboriginal community leaders. The second is in our emphatic commitment to a full co-educational experience for our students. Neither of these two things was in place before 2014 and they are here now. They have been added intentionally and explicitly.

I also like to think that the things that were already in place have been supported and enhanced.

We note that our graduates will probably still be in the workforce in 2080, maybe even longer, and will likely still be alive in the 22nd century. So we need to think well beyond a 21st century education. For the next generation, we are trying to equip our young people with the capacity to engage with other communities. Our view is an ethos that brings diverse and divergent views together and expresses a desire to be involved in other communities different to our own.

How do you provide support and leadership to your staff?
Empowerment is really important and sitting alongside empowerment is the empowerment to fulfil your own personal contribution to delivering the school’s ethos. Barker College is blessed enough to have people who want to work here, who choose to be here. We tell them to come and teach beautifully but to also contribute to this ethos and do it holistically and also grow in the process. Therefore my role is to provide a shelter or safe experience for our staff to do exactly that – to provide a framework, resource them, encourage them, support them and then stand back and watch as they do it.

What role do you play in the day-to-day activities of the students?
I’m a cheer squad for the students. I love to watch and know and enthuse in what they are doing. I visit them on their birthdays and I like to watch their performances, sports, concerts and addresses. It’s very important for me to exercise cultural and symbolic leadership through a presence, through being there to watch them and engage purposefully and knowledgably about what they are doing.

I want my office to be a place of hope, healing, grace, fulfilment and encouragement; rather than a place of restitution and sentencing.

My whole room and everything it stands for should express what the school’s values are all about. I am fully aware of that and feel the weight of that everyday. My relationship and rapport with students should always be dignified with respect and enthusiasm.

What are some of the more critical issues faced by educators in the independent school sector today?
There are significant identity questions emerging about our young people, largely informed by technology and its impact on the psyche. We are living in a society of outrage, where many of the messages we receive are negative and cast doubt on the trustworthiness of institutions.

We are also in an age of uncertainty. No longer are we preparing young men and women for a predictable life. The more we equip them to see the new normal, which is about volatility and uncertainty, the better we will be doing for our students.

Educating for character, resilience, the capacity to believe in self sufficiency, to keep trying new things and the ability to endure disappointment and doubt will be just as important as the ATAR score – and possibly even more so.

The best predictor of a student’s happiness and fulfilment in life is not their ATAR, it’s actually their character, and their ability to exercise emotional restraint and self care.

This is something that schools don’t measure. The reason we don’t measure it is because it is too hard to measure, but it’s right at the heart of what education is about. All of that leads to a very profound set of challenges that schools are facing and I think that is going to escalate in the future.

Can you describe any specific ways in which the digital era is beginning to disrupt the education field?
There are several: the immediacy of information as opposed to knowledge, the tractional nature of knowledge, and the distractions that arise from the permeation of technology.

There is also the saturation of handheld devices and the need to work across quite different modalities about communication and expression – moving from screen to page, image and moving image to spoken word – and we’re requiring all of this from students to understand how knowledge is communicated.

We’re living in a very bespoke information world where our newsfeed frames itself around what you’re interested in. The education system is still essentially a 19th century construct with some 20th century updates, but the world doesn’t look like that anymore.

In Hollywood there is much talk about how Netflix is changing the industry. In the past, we had to wait for a series to be aired and would watch it when it was televised. Now, we are able to download an entire series at once. And this is happening in schools too. Whole courses can now be downloaded, so knowledge can be transmitted in huge dumps, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is understood. So how does this impact on how the school curriculum is taught?

Gaming which was once seen as a distraction is now being incorporated into the curriculum. It is being seen as less of a distraction and more of a tool for learning about things like coding. There is a significant shift going on and we are still beginning to understand it.

People want things when they need it, but what does that mean for school timetables going forward?

These are very exciting times if we have the courage to see them so.

What are your feelings about NAPLAN and its effectiveness?
NAPLAN carries an important place that provides important feedback and serves as a diagnostic instrument. If we were to shut it down, we should replace it with something equivalent as quickly as possible. While NAPLAN continues to provide evidence of progress, it has its place.

I am broadly supportive of NAPLAN, but I am not supportive of the politicisation of NAPLAN or the granulated approach to data, which enables comparisons that are not entirely healthy and causes competition between schools.

But with that said, I think we can manage those morbidities without underestimating the merit of the NAPLAN testing system.

What has been your most memorable moment either as a teacher or specifically in the role of principal?
It’s always about the students, about the change in the life of a student, and that has happened with so much frequency. I’m constantly staggered by the raw capacity of growth, the growth in the life of a person.

There are so many cases to mention, cases where a life has been touched or transformed in some way, where a student has recovered from illness and achieved great results, where a student learns something they never thought they could do, or stared down their own barrel of self-doubt, or overcome moments of despair, or was on a destructive path but has reformed. There have been students who should have been shown the door but were given another chance. There have been times where these students have gone on to achieve great things beyond school, where we have both been in tears about what they have achieved.

A personal one for me is the fulfilment of being involved with Aboriginal families and how much I’ve learned from them about what it is to be human.

What traits make for an effective and successful leader in education today?
Beyond all else, it’s love. As simplistic as it sounds, it’s love that adds to all of the other skills – the administrative tasks, acumen, determination, drive and grit really aren’t worth anything if love is not present.

As a leader, you have to love the students, the staff and the life of everybody in your community or else it becomes merely a role to play.

There’s a lot in all of that, but at the end of the day, for me, love is the decisive thing. Though your way of showing love might be different to someone else’s, or the way you show love to one person may be different to how you show love to another person, pre-eminently, being a successful leader needs to be driven by the central purpose of loving another and calling on them to be greater than they ever imagined they could be.

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