Macquarie Grammar School: a school for the 21st century

An urbane education … Macquarie Grammar School’s city setting offers students ready access to Sydney’s best cultural and sporting facilities.

An office block at the south end of Clarence Street in Sydney’s CBD may be an unlikely spot for a high school but breaking new ground is at the heart of the Macquarie Grammar School (MGS) ethos.

Styling itself a “21st century grammar school”, MGS is forging a new school model that capitalises on its urban setting to offer students a sophisticated education with contemporary relevance.

“It’s the way of the future,” says MGS Headmaster Mr Rekouniotis. “Traditional schools have a fence and a playground, we’re in a highrise in the CBD with access to the city’s top cultural and sporting facilities.

“We use city resources to produce a real-life educational program. When our economics students study the stock market, they walk over to the Australian Securities Exchange. Our Art class can walk to the NSW Art Gallery for a lesson. Our Biology students learn about plant life at the Botanic Gardens, we have swimming classes at the Ian Thorpe Aquatic Centre. At a traditional school, visiting those sites would entail an excursion but here students can go on a number of excursions in a day without missing a lesson.”

Cultivating knowledge … Macquarie Grammar School students enjoy an open air class at the Botanic Gardens.

Mr Rekouniotis says that another aim of the school is to acclimatise students to corporate culture to prepare them for a professional career.

“Our students are far more mature than others and I am sure it’s because of the environment. We let them leave the school at recess and lunch to explore the city. When they go buy lunch they can go to any cafe in town, just like everyone else. They’re influenced by the behaviour of the office workers around them in the city not just the school environment.”

“Students love it here because they are treated like adults, they come and go during breaks as they like. The onus is on them to arrive on time and return to school on time. They are accountable and responsible for their learning. This model produces the greatest growth in students both emotionally and academically that I’ve seen,” Mr Rekouniotis says.

It’s not just students that love the location, parents do too, he says. “Parents are time-poor and it’s easy to travel together with their children to the city and go home with them. Some of the students even have lunch with their parents. Here the students don’t have to be picked up, they just walk to their parents’ workplace after school and they go home together.”

Culture of excellence … Macquarie Grammar School Headmaster John Rekouniotis (pictured at right) takes pride in his students’ strong work ethic.

As a small school, MGS has fewer students than the average primary school, but that it is one of its great advantages, says Mr Rekouniotis. No one slips under the radar at MGS. “I have a student welfare officer who oversees every student in the school, liaises with parents, talks with students every day. If there is a problem with attendance or performance, she talks to them to find out why. Are there issues at home? Are they homesick? We uncover problems almost instantly and pass on the information to the other staff. You’re not a number here. I know every student by name and so do the other teachers,” he says.

Of this tight-knit population, approximately half are international students attracted by the school’s excellent academic reputation, Mr Rekouniotis says.

The school’s house system assigns a tutor to every student and teachers provide before and after school learning assistance. MGS has a strong STEM emphasis and encourages girls to pursue these subjects. “Girls and boys are treated equally here and girls do just as well as boys. Our top students at all levels of maths last year were girls,” he says.

Another drawcard for international students is the school’s very effective ESL course, says Mr Rekouniotis. “The High School Preparation program (years 7-10) is an intensive course to progress students into the mainstream of the student body. We’ve learned how to develop English language skills very quickly — usually within two to three terms. I think we’re the only independent school that runs this program.”

“My greatest joy is when I hand out a certificate of High School Preparation to a student. They come here hardly speaking English and a few months later, they’re communicating fluently with you,” he says.

The school’s cosmopolitan makeup informs its atmosphere and academic outcomes, Mr Rekouniotis says. “Our student body reflects the multicultural nature of Australia. There’s no dominant culture in the school. Multiculturalism is strongly espoused and reinforced at the school. The level of respect and support that the students give to each other is enormous. I’ve never seen it at another school.”

“Our students are not necessarily exceptional just very diligent. Their cultural background encourages focus on study. Many of our domestic students come here because of that attitude.  They respect education and are determined to do well in school.”

The school’s HSC results speak for themselves, Mr Rekouniotis says. “We’re focused on ensuring that our students go on to university. None of them go into the trades.”

7 Steps to choosing the right school for your child

A great school can make a world of difference to a child’s development but with so much choice available how can parents find the best option for their child and family circumstances? This step-by-step guide can help families think the matter through to get the best result.

Off to a great start … find the right school to set your child up for long-term success.
    1. Know what you want

While the curriculum is broadly similar throughout the country, schools vary widely in how they implement it. Most parents will have a view on how a school should approach teaching with considered opinions on everything from values and discipline to academic focus and extracurricular opportunities. Make a list of the qualities you associate with a good school to provide a basis for your search.

      1. Explore all the options

There are not only more schools than ever before but also a greater diversity of school styles. What was once a day school or boarding / religious or secular calculation now involves far more variables. Alternative education models such as Steiner, Montessori and John Colet achieve outstanding academic results while adhering to distinct educational philosophies but there is significant scholastic variance within the mainstream too. Schools have disparate strengths and areas of focus as well as differing cultural and religious emphases. Be aware of all your options to avoid overlooking an excellent opportunity.

      1. Determine your child’s needs

Even within the same family, children can have very different needs and learning styles. What suited the eldest perfectly might be all wrong for the youngest. A studied appraisal of your child’s personality, talents and intellectual acuity can provide a useful guide as to what kind of school would best suit them. Some questions to consider include:

      • Would your child benefit from more, or less, structure?
      • Is your child more likely to succeed in a co-ed or single sex setting?
      • Are there any areas in which your child requires more attention?
      • What kind of environment would best help your child to flourish academically and socially?
      • How can your child’s talents be best supported?
      • What is your child’s unique gift and how can it be fully realised?
      1. Be pragmatic

Every decision is constrained by practical considerations. Determining your priorities and limitations can help narrow your search to a list of feasible options. Expense is an obvious issue. Work out what your are able and, more importantly, willing to pay for your child’s schooling. Faith and cultural values are of utmost importance to many families while a school’s location and expectations of parental involvement are also vital. Daily routines have the greatest impact on family life so it’s important to take Saturday sport, extracurricular activities and commuting into account when looking at a school. Fortunately, driving your child to school is not usually necessary with most major independent schools operating school bus services throughout the metropolitan area. Check school websites for transport information to ensure that your child can easily get to a school.

      1. Look past the numbers

In considering these questions, you’ve probably formed a clear idea of what you’re looking for, now it’s a matter of finding it. The proliferation of schools data websites in recent years has made it relatively easy for parents to ascertain a school’s objective qualities, but the more difficult-to-assess subjective aspects are liable to be just as crucial in making a final decision. While NAPLAN scores, HSC results, student-teacher ratios and other statistics are all important indicators they only tell a part of the story. For the vast majority of students, success will depend on finding the right educational fit. An ideal starting point is to attend one of the many Independent Schools Expos held throughout the year. These popular events offer families an informal, pressure-free setting to meet with staff and students from a wide selection of Sydney’s top schools. For busy parents, the Expos are an unsurpassed opportunity to gain the greatest amount of firsthand knowledge in the least amount of time.

      1. Get up close and personal

Once you’ve settled on a short list, the next step is to visit your nominated schools. By this point, most parents will have undertaken extensive online research and will be well-informed about a school’s reputation and academic achievements but nothing can give you a better sense of a school’s suitability for your child than interacting with it personally. Open nights highlight the best aspects of a school and can be a fun outing for the whole family but, if you have the time, a school hours visit is more likely to reveal how the atmosphere and ethos is experienced by students on a daily basis. A walk around the grounds at lunchtime can convey a great deal about a school’s institutional values and overall disposition of its student body. This is also a good time to inquire about the organisational details that underpin a school’s culture. Some issues parents may want to discuss with a prospective school include:

      • Homework policies
      • Behaviour expectations
      • Discipline and standards
      • Anti-bullying measures
      • Professional development and support for teachers
      • School community vitality
      1. Finding the right fit

Finally; you’ve found a school that meets your criteria, your child is enrolled and you’re both looking forward to a great year. A new school will always involve a settling-in period but in the long term, US website advises parents to look out for these signs of a good fit between school and student:

    • Your child is happy to go to school in the morning and returns energised and happy at the end of the day
    • The pace of learning is right for your child: challenging but achievable
    • Your can see your child’s development progressing with each year
    • Your child feels appreciated at school
    • Your child is meeting their academic potential
    • Your child feels liked and accepted by their friendship group
    • School work and friends are important, but not all-consuming, parts of your child’s life

A guaranteed path to Sydney University

Sydney University offers international students a guaranteed path into its undergraduate degree programs through the University of Sydney Foundation Program (USFP) delivered by Taylors College, located at Waterloo in central Sydney.

The alternative entry method caters to students who need to improve their English or academic results in order to meet the requirements of their preferred university course. Students who complete the course to the appropriate standard are automatically offered at place at the University of Sydney.

In 2015, 88.4% of the program’s 460 graduates went on to study at the University of Sydney and all graduates were offered a place at an Australian tertiary education institution.

“USFP is a really good program designed not only to allow you to study at a prestigious uni, but also to be able to do well in it.”
Andrew, Taiwan – USFP grad now studying a Bachelor of Commerce / Law at the University of Sydney.

Of the students who progressed to the University of Sydney, just over half were accepted into Business or Economics degrees, 64 graduates chose Engineering, nine were accepted into the university’s medical school and six students embarked on combined law degrees.

The balance enrolled in Nursing, Veterinary Science, Pharmacy, Applied Science, Education, Architecture, and Music and Visual Arts.

Underlying this excellent result is the college’s focus on teaching the key learning skills that students need to excel academically and succeed at university, says international marketing manager James Flannagan.

“We have an extensive and strong relationship with the University of Sydney. Our programs are university-approved and designed to ensure that the students are learning specifically for their degree path.”

Experienced staff and excellent support mechanisms are also key components of USFP.

“All our teachers are experts in their subject areas and specialise in international education. We provide counselling in all our programs and one-on-one tutoring sessions. We prepare our students professionally, personally and academically for university,” Mr Flannagan says.

Taylors College was founded in 1920 to provide coaching for University of Melbourne students. It accepted its first students from China in 1925 and opened its Sydney campus in 1936. Further expansion to Perth and Auckland followed and today the college is part of the Study Group network of international education providers.

Over its long history of teaching foreign students, Taylors College has developed a unique approach.

“We don’t have student uniforms. Kids are treated as adults and encouraged to take responsibility for themselves and become independent learners within a nurturing school environment,” says Mr Flannagan.

“Students are all international, with a large cultural mix from throughout Asia, but we have students from all over the world. By integrating them fully into college life we can support them in dealing with the cultural change. It’s essential that students develop social networks to help them navigate a new cultural landscape and to help prepare them for the university experience,” Mr Flannagan says.

The college offers a personalised, flexible education experience with three streams in the USFP:

* Standard Program — five subjects, 25 hours per week of class time, over 40 weeks.

* Standard Intensive Program — the fast track to university. Students take eight subjects and class time is increased to 30 hours per week to enable course completion in 30 weeks.

* Extended Program — incorporating a pre-foundation course of 19 weeks followed by the Standard Program, this 59-week course is delivered over three semesters.

Academically gifted students with fluent English skills are encouraged to consider the University of Sydney High Achievers Preparation Program. This 17-week course instills high-level academic competencies along with teaching specific study topics aligned to students’ intended Bachelor Degrees.

The USFP is available only to international students but local students are very welcome in the senior High School stream at Taylors College. Comprising Years 10-12, Taylors High School is a university-preparation academy that applies the same methodologies as the USFP to ensure that students achieve to their highest potential in the HSC.

For more information about Taylors College, see: or come meet school representatives in person at the Sydney Independent Schools Expo at Luna Park, Sunday, March 12, 2017.