There’s a new high school for children with special needs in Sydney’s north-west.
From January 2019, St Gabriel’s School, a Catholic primary special education school in Castle Hill, will expand to offer places in Year 7.
A progressive roll-out of the following year levels will see the school offer full K-12 classes by 2023.
St Gabriel’s secondary school will continue the work of the primary school, providing education to students with diagnosed conditions including autism, mild to moderate intellectual disabilities and sensory impairments.
Principal Jon Franzin says St Gabriel’s expansion is driven by the needs of the school community.
“The transition point between primary and secondary is particularly challenging for parents. Being able to offer a continuum of services in K-12 is something that the parent community has been longing for for their children.”
Previously, about half of St Gabriel’s students graduated to its sister high school, St Edmund’s College in Wahroonga on Sydney’s upper north shore, with the remainder finding places in other independent schools or the public system.
Rapid population growth in Sydney’s west though has strengthened the demand for a local special needs high school, particularly for parents seeking a Catholic education for their children, Mr Franzin says.
“Travel time to St Edmund’s is significant, especially for families who live west of St Gabriel’s and finding a place in the Catholic setting can be challenging,” he says.
St Gabriel’s and St Edmund’s are co-ed schools in the Edmund Rice tradition. They place a strong emphasis on Catholic traditions of love, justice, freedom and inclusion to promote acceptance and develop positive self-esteem in students.
These schools offer “holistic education for the child, not just about curriculum; it’s about Christian values that we espouse and live out,” he says.
As principal of both schools, Mr Franzin says the development of life skills is at the heart of their mission to equip students with the ability to participate meaningfully in the wider community as adults.
“All students will undertake our Pathways to Work program; part of that is one day a week work experience in the community,” he says, with the aim of placing students in some kind of work role when they finish school. “Depending on needs, some will get supported employment or volunteer work. Where students have the capacity, we’re aiming to get them into regularised employment.”
St Edmund’s College has had great success with its hospitality industry training program and St Gabriel’s will also focus on food and beverage service with a view to incorporating agricultural studies in the future.
Students have the opportunity to complete the National Education Standards Authority (NESA) Life Skills course and to complete a partial or full Vocational and Educational Training certificate.
While supported learning for special needs students is offered in the public system, Mr Franzin says his schools offer considerable benefits for these children in terms of experience, expertise and Gospel values.
“We are inspired by the very strong belief that the young people we serve have a fundamental right to a quality education that is meaningful, purposeful and hope filled,” he says.
At St Gabriel’s, highly-qualified teachers and learning support officers are supplemented by developmental experts to ensure the best outcome for students, he says.
“We have a whole-school model for occupational therapy and speech pathology, working one-on-one with teachers to support students and develop the capacity of the teacher.”
Small classes of 10 or fewer students allow teachers to produce individualised learning plans to meet a range of abilities and the schools’ embrace of technology-enabled Blended Learning methods extends students to maximise their potential, Mr Franzin says.
“Our staff are very skilled at differentiating the curriculum. We’ll be using an educational platform to help students learn as independently as possible so students can work through at their own level and develop their skills. Students will be able to engage at a range of multiple points to meet their needs.
“For 96 years we’ve been at the forefront of special education, initially for the hearing impaired. We can tailor the curriculum to students’ needs, support parents in that community, and our students form genuine friendships that are established, profound and lifelong,” he says.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
A vivid green dragon extends its wings and breathes a volcanic gust of flame before settling quietly on the school book page. Is this a scene from Harry Potter? Maybe the opening frames of a new Disney blockbuster? Perhaps a Year 3 arithmetic textbook as envisioned and hand-drawn by the student herself?
If you guessed the last, you may already be familiar with the central pillars of the Steiner teaching method: creativity, imagination, experiential learning and a holistic approach to education that aligns with the developmental stages of childhood.
“We have a picture of child development that lies behind what we do. At each stage of the school journey there are specific ways that we work with the child to match what we have observed over time to be the ways children learn,” says Glenaeon Rudolf Steiner School principal Andrew Hill. “It produces happy, adjusted children because we’re meeting the child’s specific needs at each stage.”
This developmental emphasis is seen most distinctly in the early years of Steiner schooling when children are encouraged to learn through active play and imitation. Singing, dancing, movement and story time are complemented with practical skills like knitting, cooking, sewing and gardening. Learning is almost entirely a physical activity at this stage with formal literacy and numeracy lessons delayed until students are intellectually ready.
“They go through a change around the age of seven when they start to learn through more abstract thought, rather than concrete bodily experience; they start to learn through imagination and images. That’s why they’re so receptive to stories and the arts,” Mr Hill says.
This is followed by the third stage of learning when children acquire conceptual and analytical skills, Mr Hill says. “Gradually, the rational intellect unfolds, around 10-12, that’s when they start to make connections between things. They can see cause and effect and that becomes the way they learn as adults.”
“The broad benefit of a Steiner education is learning in ways that are more natural. I like to think of it as like organic farming. It’s organic education. We fit in with the child’s natural rate of growth,” Mr Hill says.
In practice, this means the emphasis in the first years of schooling is on developing the foundations of learning through creative pursuits. One of the first activities is drawing, which leads into writing, which leads into reading.
As Mr Hill explains: “Children create their own first readers, handwritten and illustrated in Year 1. Teachers tell stories to build imagination and stimulate a creative understanding, which, in turn, is the foundation of comprehension in literacy. The research shows that they quickly catch up to, and typically surpass, students in other systems. Late is more: evidence from an international, peer-reviewed study shows that as a group, students from Steiner schools start reading later but then exceed the reading fluency of mainstream students who started earlier.”
Mr Hill says his personal experience bears out these findings, even in the occasional case where students appear to be worryingly slow to catch on.
“It’s a case of the Hare and the Tortoise: slow and steady wins the race. Like Finland, we don’t teach formal reading until around age seven and it takes another year or so before it kicks in. We had one girl who still wasn’t getting it when she was eight. She had all the elements in place, we’d measured everything. The parents were anxious but they trusted us and, eventually, just after age nine, she started to read. She went through a very gentle, natural process and by the time she was 10, she was reading ravenously. She’s now a pediatrician,” Mr Hill says.
“Not all children who are slow to read fall into this category of course, and students with learning issues are assessed and supported with a range of strategies.”
Steiner education, also known as Waldorf education, is named for its founder, Austrian polymath Rudolf Steiner, who also developed the theory of biodynamic agriculture.
He established the Steiner movement in 1919 with the opening of a school at the Waldorf-Astoria factory in Stuttgart, Germany. The school was an immediate success and Steiner schools quickly proliferated throughout Britain and Europe.
In 1957, the movement came to Australia with the founding of Glenaeon Rudolf Steiner School. There are now more than 40 Steiner schools throughout Australia as well as Steiner streams in some public schools in Victoria and South Australia.
The Steiner method has some defining characteristics rarely seen in mainstream schools.
In the primary school years, students have one teacher throughout years 1-6. This approach is based on the Nordic model, Mr Hill says, and the aim is to create a secure, tightly-knit class community in which students are very well known to their teachers and to each other.
Immersive learning is another hallmark of Steiner education. School days begin with a two-hour “main lesson”, in which a broad topic is taught from a multi-disciplinary perspective for a period of three weeks. Teachers present the material with drama and artistry to capture students’ imaginations and inspire them to produce their own beautifully illustrated textbooks.
“Even with Maths they try to build the lesson around an imaginative story that is going to excite their students and keep their interest throughout. They’re learning all the standard Maths but it’s filled out with this wonderful rich imagination,” Mr Hill says.
Committed to developing global citizens, Glenaeon pioneered languages in primary school in Sydney: all students learn two foreign languages up to Year 6 and then choose one to continue learning in Years 7-10, after which it becomes an elective.
In primary school, students develop their human faculties first: drawing, handwriting, playing musical instruments, and importantly learning to use tools to make useful and beautiful artifacts in textiles, wool, wood and metal. The school calls its use of technology the Artisan program which builds practical and entrepreneurial skills. Digital technology on the other hand is eschewed until high school when ICT is integrated into learning. Natural materials are used as much as possible throughout the school.
Once students reach high school level, Glenaeon is not particularly different to a mainstream school because teenagers learn similarly to adults, Mr Hill says. However, the five foundational programs of Steiner education: Academic, Aesthetic, Artisan, Active Wilderness and Altruistic are intrinsic to all the years.
The effect of these programs is seen in Glenaeon’s excellent HSC results, its emphasis on the creative and performing arts and craftsmanship, its extensive outdoor education program and its deep emphasis on mutual respect and personal responsibility.
The school’s low incidence of bullying is consistent with research showing that bullying is a rare occurrence in Steiner schools generally. Mr Hill attributes this happy outcome to Glenaeon’s discouragement of competitiveness between students.
“It’s a very rigorous education but it’s done with this more positive relational quality of working with students and a class as a community. Students work and do well, not to beat other children, but to be their best and that has an effect on the mood in the classroom,” Mr Hill says.
With its focus on creativity, wellbeing and self-reliance Steiner education is a child-centric pedagogy whose time has come, Mr Hill says. “Many schools talk about positive education these days but we’ve always been positive. Positivity is implicit in the method we use.”
“We pioneered a holistic approach to education that genuinely fosters the overall wellbeing of students on all fronts; recognising that a successful life is made up of a balance between intellectual growth, emotional maturity and a practical ability to do things in the world rather than a simplistic academic measure of competence. The ATAR is important as a measure of intellectual excellence, but the world is looking for more than just that as a predictor of personal and professional success.
“I’ve been teaching in different schools for 30 years. The greatest reward is seeing students grow and develop and, after all they work they’ve put into it, become the person they were destined to be.”