Silver linings: How PLC Sydney made the most of remote learning

PLC Sydney Principal Dr Paul Burgis chats with Junior School students.

The coronavirus induced transition to remote learning presented a huge range of challenges to schools and families, with many parents fearing that their children would be disadvantaged by the disruption.

But at PLC Sydney, it was far from a bad experience. In fact, “it was a great win”, says Principal Dr Paul Burgis, thanks to swift action and a lot of hard work.

PLC Sydney Principal Dr Paul Burgis.

By the time NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced the closure of schools as part of the non-essential services lockdown, PLC Sydney had already taken classes online.

“We started on the Thursday before the premier made it official on the Monday,” says Dr Burgis.

“We decided when the curve really took off that we would try to avoid having a case and look after our staff [who] were particularly vulnerable because of adult-to-adult transmission.”

Using Zoom video conferencing software for lessons and Google Classroom for homework and assignments, the school of almost 1400 students didn’t skip a beat. Even the technology cooperated, with PLC Sydney encountering far fewer problems than anticipated.

The hardest part was keeping students engaged with learning, especially in the early years.

“For years 3-12, it worked really well. We were primarily concerned for the young ones,” Dr Burgis says, “they need more assistance.”

To provide that, PLC Sydney employed a “multi-modal framework” with lots of activity-based learning and problem solving tasks, supplemented by explanations and individual follow-up, he says.

“Power Up Wednesdays” allocated a day every week to creative, physical and wellbeing projects to help students cope with the emotional burden of isolation. A competition to “Walk Around the World” saw the girls collectively take enough steps around their homes to get to Florence, Italy; while the “Portrait in Isolation” project challenged students and staff to express their feelings in a self-portrait. The evocative results are now on exhibition at the school.

Year 9 student Emylene Kuoch’s self-portrait for PLC Sydney’s Portraits in Isolation exhibition.

“We also did a living history project, where students wrote their experience of working at home to pass on to future generations. One of the museums in Sydney thought it was a great project and they’re going to do something with it,” he adds.

“I’ve been really impressed by how calmly the girls have gone about things. Across the whole school the students have been fantastic. We haven’t had any increase in wellbeing issues; if anything slightly less.

“I want to pay tribute to the teachers for that. The comment from the students was that the teachers were really there for them.”

Positive outcomes from remote learning can be felt throughout the school, Dr Burgis says. Zoom has worked so well that they’ll be incorporating it permanently for classes at PLC Sydney’s Jindabyne-based Winter School. Boarders stranded overseas and in country NSW have been able to return to school virtually, and taking P&F meetings online has tripled attendance.

Year 12 student Helena Law’s self-portrait for PLC Sydney’s Portraits in Isolation exhibition.

Parent information sessions have gone digital too. Dr Burgis describes PLC Sydney’s inaugural webinar for 130 prospective parents as logistically challenging but ultimately successful.

“I presented, one of our vice-captains spoke and we did a virtual tour of the college. Our executive were all on standby to chat. Parents typed in questions and I answered as many as I could and the executive were all typing away answers.

“We got quite a few enrolments so I think we did okay.”

As constructive as these past few weeks have been though, nothing can replace the social aspects of school, Dr Burgis says.

“Students really missed their peers. After a while, working from home becomes a bit like Groundhog Day, every day follows the same pattern. Face to face we read the nuances and enjoy the physical company of others.”

Remote learning has many advantages but it’s exhausting in the long term and requires heavy lifting from teachers, students and parents to make it work, he acknowledges.

“I’ve really appreciated how the staff, teachers and executive have come together really well to make sure the learning worked. That’s been tiring though. This is normally a long weekend with a professional development day but we’ve given the staff an extra day off. They’ve been working hard and they’ve just done a huge professional development task on the job.

“We’ve been really grateful for the support of the community and because of that it’s worked well.”

Proof positive: Knox Grammar transforms traditional education for the 21st century

Total Fitness … Knox Grammar School’s innovative Positive Education program is a quantifiable success.

Boasting stately buildings and manicured grounds, Knox Grammar School on Sydney’s Upper North Shore would appear to be the epitome of old school.

But looks are deceiving. Knox is in its 10th year of a transformational project to bring pastoral care to the forefront of the school’s culture. Its Total Fitness program broadens the school’s remit to cultivate students’ characters as well as their minds. Integrating the principles of Positive Education into a traditional academic setting, Knox’s cutting-edge methodology seeks to equip students with the knowledge and life skills required to flourish in a globalised economy.   

“We are renewing the traditional model of education through thoughtful innovation and a focus on preparing students for a rapidly changing world,” says Scott James, the school’s newly appointed headmaster.

“The 21st century is an interconnected, diverse world. Students need to develop empathy and collaboration skills to prepare themselves for the evolving workplace of the future.”

Positive Educator … Knox Grammar School’s newly appointed headmaster Scott James.

The program has special relevance for Mr James who initiated a re-think of pastoral care when he came to Knox in 2009 as head of the Senior School. An extensive research review lead the school council to adopt Positive Education as an evidence-based framework for a rejuvenated school culture. Working with Sydney’s Positive Psychology Institute Knox developed its data-driven Total Fitness Positive Education program in alignment with the school’s unique heritage and values.

“Total Fitness is about holistic education. We focus on the whole student — academic, social, physical and spiritual aspects — based on the science and evidence of Positive Education. All our staff are trained in it, which allows them to focus on the optimal functioning of students in our care,” says Mr James.

Since its implementation in 2011, Knox has tracked the program’s impact on staff and students. The results demonstrate improvement in key areas of the school with the Knox community enjoying significantly greater stakeholder satisfaction than that of comparable schools.

While the data offer quantifiable proof that Knox is tracking in the right direction, Positive Education has made a difference at every level of school life, Mr James says, by nurturing “non-cognitive life skills, such as “empathy, tolerance, compassion and understanding of other people’s points of view”.

“I can see it in the everyday development of these skills in the staff and students. You can see it in the classroom and on the sporting field.”

The equal emphasis on staff wellbeing distinguishes Positive Education from other pastoral care models and underscores the school’s holistic educational approach.

At Knox, every activity presents a mentoring opportunity. “All our teachers are also mentors trained in Positive Education,” says Mr James.

Holistic approach … Every teacher at Knox Grammar School is also a mentor trained in Positive Education.

Adult guidance is supplemented by ‘boy to man’ mentor programs, Mr James says, “because we believe boys learning from boys is critical”.

Knox is a perennial high achiever in the HSC but recent years have seen even better results with the school ranking in the top 20 last year.

Mr James attributes this happy outcome to the extensive support the school offers students in those stressful senior years. “In years 11 and 12 we have a senior academic mentor to help the boys with time management and goal setting. Students have a mentor for the pastoral side and the academic side,” Mr James says.

In the school’s boarding houses Positive Education extends to every aspect of student life. “Our staffing structures facilitate a family atmosphere for boarders with a husband and wife team leading each house, while our “whole of life” boarding programs give boys opportunities to acquire life skills and credentials,” Mr James says. “We support them to do their RSA course, barista courses, learner driving as well as co-curricular activities.”

“Our boarders are extremely successful academically. There’s no doubt that the academic support and availability of resources 24/7 that contributes to that,” he says.

Proud heritage … Knox Grammar School offers best-practice education in a traditional setting.

Improved wellbeing and academic outcomes are just the beginning though. Mr James has an ambitious and wide-ranging plan for the school’s progress in the years to come.

He is “committed to building a learning community of the highest quality” that will empower students to succeed to their fullest potential. Central to this project is the cultivation of core character traits: integrity, resilience and the pursuit of excellence.

“My vision is to be an exemplary school developing within a caring, Christian environment to produce young people with a sure knowledge of who they are and how they want to live,” Mr James says.

“I have key focus areas for the school: leadership, teaching excellence, learning excellence, Knox Total Fitness and global mindfulness, which is critical to give students the opportunity to engage in social justice programs, community service and immersion activities. These experiences give students a sense of mastery and efficacy and help to develop rapport with other people,” he says.

“Knox is a school for boys of all abilities, races and creeds where they’re supported as equals. With our understanding of mental fitness we can teach boys to deal with setbacks and develop grit. We emphasise ‘stickability’ — staying on task and employing a growth mindset.

“Intelligence is not innate but can be developed.”

 

References

Knox Grammar School website
http://www.knox.nsw.edu.au/

Positive Psychology At Work: Research & Applications – Part 3 School Case Study & Impacts
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-x5ksxyHC8k

Positive Psychology At Work: Research & Applications – Part 4 School Case Study & Impacts
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ExTxdUuUvkk

New super school for Bathurst

Power coupling … The Scots School headmaster David Gates, right, is looking forward to maximising his students’ opportunities following the school’s union with All Saints’ College. Credit: The Scots School

Two of state’s leading independent schools, All Saints’ College and The Scots School, have put aside their longstanding rivalry in favour of a merger.

All Saints’ was on the market for more than a year before The Scots School’s parent body emerged as the winning bidder.

The news came as a surprise to observers as the Bathurst-based co-ed boarding schools have historically played up their differences and are administered by different churches.

The Scots School is owned by the Presbyterian Church while All Saints’ was run by the Anglican Diocese of Bathurst until its recent purchase by the Presbyterian Church of NSW.

The All Saints’ sale was precipitated by the Diocese’s financial difficulties and the proceeds will go toward retiring debt.

Anglican Bishop of Bathurst Ian Palmer welcomed the sale, saying that it is in the best interests of the All Saints’ community. “It will set the college on a pathway that will enhance its status as the leading educational institution in the Central West in a way that the diocese does not have the resources to do.”

The schools announced their new partnership on August 29 of this year but intend to remain separate entities for the immediate future with plans to eventually integrate, possibly as soon as 2019.

All Saints’ Head of College, Steven O’Connor was upbeat about the school’s prospects under its new regime.

“Today’s announcement is the commencement of a bright new future for the college,” Mr O’Connor said. “It represents the best possible outcome for all stakeholders, and will see minimal changes to the day-to-day operations of the college.”

Locals and alumni have reacted quite positively to the joint venture. Facebook comments on the Western Advocate’s report of the merger ranged from enthusiasm for a larger school in the area: “a fantastic opportunity for two great schools to become a powerhouse” and “a great move. Will make a great sized school with heaps of opportunities for the students” to speculation about how it will impact the local rugby union competition: “Well that is going to make for an interesting trophy season in 2019.”

These sentiments were echoed by The Scots School Headmaster David Gates who told the Western Advocate that there is much to look forward to in the alliance.

“It’s all about maximising the quality facilities we have across the two schools,” Mr Gates said.  “It’s a chance to enhance the academic and co-curricular programs and the strengths of both schools will be even greater.”

Mr O’Connor agreed, predicting an upsurge in student numbers coming up to the 2019 school year. “If we maintain our current enrolments until the start of 2019 we will start the new school with around 750 kids which is a good size school,” he said.

“I would anticipate in five years’ time those numbers could grow from 750 to 900 or even 1000. I’m very optimistic about what this could mean five years down the track.”

Some of the growth will be spurred by a likely fee reduction to bring All Saints’ into line with Scots, which reduced its fees by 30 per cent this year.

“I anticipate the two schools next year would have the same fee structure,” Mr O’Connor said. “I understand Scots are very pleased with their new fee structure and they are the new owners so they will ultimately determine that.”

But while there’s strength in numbers, the larger aim is to combine their resources for a sustainable future focused on excellence, Mr Gates said.

“We believe the merger of two respected schools in Bathurst will provide students with a wider choice of subjects and co-curricular opportunities at every level of their education and will provide students of both schools with enhanced opportunities to develop their interests and character.”

References:

All Saints’ College to Become a Fully Independent Anglican School — Anglican Diocese of Bathurst website
http://www.bathurstanglican.org.au/announcements/all-saints-college-to-become-a-fully-independent-anglican-school

One school and one future — Murray Nichols, Western Advocate, August 30, 2017
http://www.westernadvocate.com.au/story/4891333/one-school-and-one-future/

Presbyterian Church of NSW buys All Saints’ College — Announcement to The Scots School community, The Scots School website, August 30, 2017
http://www.scots.nsw.edu.au/tartan-times/presbyterian-church-of-nsw-buys-all-saints-college