Principally Speaking: Yarra Valley Grammar

Dr Mark Merry, Principal at Yarra Valley Grammar, speaks to WhichSchool? Magazine about how creating a positive culture and learning environment is helping students to pave their own paths to success.

What is the philosophy of Yarra Valley Grammar and how does it guide you and your staff?

Yarra Valley Grammar is primarily an educational institution, so the main focus clearly has to be on the intellectual pursuits of our students, expanding their horizons and giving them as many opportunities as we can so that when they finish school, they have as many pathways available to them as possible, whether that be university or something else entirely.

Our philosophy is that we co-share the responsibility of educating students with their parents, who are their primary educators. The responsibility of nurturing and growing their children from the age of three to age 18 is more than just academic. It is also about nurturing character, wellbeing, engagement with sports and physical activity and much more.

We are not only a school but also a community of adults whose job it is to help our students navigate through all of the challenges they are faced with throughout their childhood and adolescence.

How does Yarra Valley Grammar differ from
other schools?

We are very fortunate that we have a number of great schools in our area. They are different types of schools but are all great schools.

Yarra Valley Grammar is situated in a beautiful park environment on 29 hectares. There is wildlife living in the forest which is part of our school.

Students are the most important here. We are fortunate to have students who love coming to school to learn and teachers who love coming to school to teach. That’s certainly a great strength of ours.

In what ways has the school evolved since you joined the school as principal 10 years ago?

We’ve had a fairly robust plan to grow the size of the school. Since 2009, we’ve grown from about 1000 students and are now nudging up to 1400 students, which is 40 per cent growth in 10 years. Over that time we have also had a robust building program, so we have constructed eight new buildings.

In terms of resources and facilities, the school is in a really great place, and students love that. If we show value in a particular area of study through investing resources and facilities, the students will follow.

The main driver is our culture – the way people treat one another, their interactions, the high expectations they have of everyone else. The culture is based around engagement in their studies and caring for each other. These combined elements make for a very positive culture at Yarra Valley Grammar and that is what make us a successful school.

Principally-Speaking-Yarra-Valley-Grammar-Dr-Mark-Merry

How do you provide support and leadership
to your staff?

With staff, we have a collegial leadership model, which means it is not overtly top down, or about giving people orders. Schools are probably among the most qualified workplaces – everyone has a graduate or postgraduate degree. There are a lot of conversations happening about where schools are going and where they should be going. At Yarra Valley Grammar, it’s more of a partnership with staff than a hierarchy; and that’s first and foremost how you support your staff.

Of course we have wellbeing programs in place for staff, but generally speaking, providing support and leadership comes down to how you run a school on a collegial basis rather than the traditional hierarchy approach.

How do you encourage wellbeing among staff
and students?

At Yarra Valley Grammar, we see the wellbeing of both staff and students as being central to our mission and central to our values. We want high performing people who can handle the pressure of the job and feel supported.

An initiative that we’ve introduced last year for students is called the Resilience Project, which is a partnership with an outside group working with our children to help them develop life and coping skills, and navigate their way through childhood. It has been very well received here.

What role do you play in the day-to-day activities of the students?

This is one of the toughest things about being the principal of a big school. If I’m not careful, a lot of my time can be spent in the office, at meetings and shuffling through papers, so every day I drop into classrooms and locker areas, and it’s the incidental conversations that keep me engaged with the students.

My most important part of the day is having a chat to students, so I try and do that each and every day. It helps to keep me engaged and helps with me knowing them and them knowing me.

What are some of the more critical issues faced by educators in the independent school sector today?

There are two things. One of these is affordability. Independent schools are becoming increasingly out of reach for a lot of people, and that’s a trend that no one wants. I don’t want our school to be elite and only cater to a small segment of the population. What we want is to be as diverse as we can and that means catering to as many people as we can, from all walks of life.

The second issue is that I don’t think there is a clear understanding of what constitutes an education in Australia today, so schools are tossing around all of these competing narratives of what is a good student or what is a good education.

If a school invests in academic pursuits, they’re accused of being an ATAR factory; if a school focuses on technology, then they’re accused of being too future focused; and if a school places a strong focus on pastoral care, they’re accused of not concentrating enough on the academic.

This negative narrative in education is a big challenge, and I think we need to speak about this more so we can change the narrative of schools.

What sort of emphasis does the school place on Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM)?

There is a big emphasis on STEAM at Yarra Valley Grammar and there has to be. It is big in the junior school and in the middle school, where we run numerous STEAM programs because there is room for lots of innovation. So if for example a Year 9 student goes into a Mathematics class thinking they are going to be doing maths, they may instead go in and code a robot. It then becomes quite interesting and engaging.

We’re doing a lot in the STEAM space. We are also working to really promote Science for girls.

There is plenty of interesting work going on in the STEAM space in the middle school. It doesn’t happen as much in the senior school because VCE tends to shape the curriculum.

What are your feelings about NAPLAN and its effectiveness?

I think the idea of NAPLAN is great – that is to have a nationwide snapshot of where our students are at, and I like that. As educators, we assess children all the time and why shouldn’t we benchmark? The issue is when the data is used incorrectly, and I think inaccurately, to compare schools. Saying that a school is good because they achieved high NAPLAN results or a school is bad because of their NAPLAN results doesn’t take into account any of the other factors within the school. It doesn’t take into account what the students might be going through, or how many students at the school don’t speak English as their first language.

NAPLAN as a measurement of schools is flawed, but as a measurement of individual students, it is great, because teachers can see where a particular student is at and help them improve in the areas that need improvement. NAPLAN provides good, rich data for teachers on each individual student sitting in front of them.

But if there is any way that someone can place a value or a judgement on a school using NAPLAN results, it means the data is being used incorrectly.

What has been your most memorable moment either as a teacher or specifically in the role of principal?

This might seem like a random answer, but my most memorable moment is my two sons graduating from school. The reason I use this answer is because ultimately it is about the children. My sons both went to the school in which I worked. This question reminded me of these significant moments in my family life – and how important these moments are for all families. I don’t take it for granted because I know what it’s like as a parent. Graduation is a celebration of achievement but it also reminds me that I am going through the same things with my children as other families. That’s why I use this example. It reminds me of the reality of family and school life.

What traits make for an effective and successful leader in education today?

You’ve got to have your basic high-end management skills which are communication, strategic thinking, organisation, systems thinking and decisiveness; but the most important thing is in the realm of the relational.

Principals now have to be able to get out there and relate with everyone, whether it be with the media, other principals, teachers, students, parents or the public. And people expect that too. They expect a leader to be able to relate. If a principal is good at that, it instils confidence in the school community. As neighbourhoods become less connected, parishes and clubs become less important, the new communities are our schools. This means that school leaders have to be those who instil confidence across the whole community, not just the school.

Education is both a complex but hugely important undertaking. Parents play a big role in educating their children, but schools are their partners. I think this is a service and a duty that we as educators provide to our community – and it’s an important role to play.

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