- Beyond the school gate
- Improving student learning
- Let's teach maths and science
- What's real in a virtual world?
- Careers and transition
- Curriculum for the 21st century
- Early childhood education & care
- Teachers and Teaching
A success story from South Australia
‘There is nothing like a set of data to create a sense of urgency’, writes HELEN PAPHITES, principal of a high school whose aim is to demonstrate that every student is on a pathway to success. But data literacy is only one facet of an ongoing strategy that has brought about a complete change in the culture and success of the school.
IN THE PAST, decisions on school improvement were mostly based on the best judgements of school leaders, teachers and key stakeholders. However, increasingly we live in a culture that has come to value and depend on statistical information to inform our decisions. Parents and caregivers rightly ask questions of the school to ensure a quality education for their children. They want to know how their child is progressing and often where they are in relation to other children of the same age. Good schools are recognising that, to maintain community confidence, they need to provide evidence of achievement. They need demonstrate, in a language that is easily and commonly understood, what they stand for, where they are headed and what they hope to achieve.
The broader community needs to believe and see that the school is meeting its aims and performing well. What the key performance indicators are will vary from school to school, depending on their priorities; however, the core business of every school is to improve student learning. Schools need to show where they started and where they have progressed to, especially where student achievement is concerned.
Salisbury High School (SHS) recognises the importance of using data in leading school improvement. The school has approximately 1000 students (years 8–12) and 100 staff— 40% of families on School Card, 21% with ESL backgrounds, 15% of students with identified disabilities, 9% Indigenous and 4% of post-compulsory ‘at risk’ students located at an annex (not at the school site).
In the early to mid 1990s, the school was facing a crisis. Student numbers were around 500 and decreasing with low attendance, retention and achievement. There appeared to be little school pride, the school was said to be run down with high incidence of vandalism. In general, staff morale was low and there was a very high turnover. At a wider community level, there was a feeling that the curriculum was not relevant to the needs of the students in the area. The curriculum had not changed in years and catered predominantly for the university pathway students. There were also indications from industry that the students were not properly prepared for the workplace.
The data showed that there was an urgent need to change the whole approach at SHS. Today, SHS is one of Australia’s success stories. This has not been an easy process and there were many issues that needed to be addressed and managed.
Leading school improvement is not a lock step process. It is the interplay or interactive and productive exercise of power. It involves taking a range of perspectives by involving others in the planning process and collectively setting directions.
In the mid 1990s, we decided that we needed to focus on success for all students. A new vision, logo and motto with a clear aim to see every student placed in employment, training or further education signified change was on the way. ‘Pathways to Success’ became the SHS motto. This was also formalised through becoming the first Enterprise High School in Australia. By embedding enterprise in and across the curriculum, the challenge was to provide authentic, hands-on learning experiences to develop students’ confidence and leadership skills, and to equip them to successfully manage their lives. It was important that schooling be made relevant and useful to students.
Collecting, interpreting and applying a range of data has had a powerful effect of focusing teams on the main agenda. There is nothing like a set of data to create a sense of urgency. It provides a vehicle to facilitate new and shared learning through searching for increased understanding and clarity. It requires us to reserve judgement and live with uncertainty while we collectively grapple with the problem presented. A sense of synergy takes hold as we investigate and explore ideas and possibilities about what it might mean and what could be achieved. This brings about a sense of shared purpose and strong staff commitment.
Other key strategies employed included: promoting a success-oriented school ethos where a range of successes were rewarded; strategic recruitment of staff; building strong student/teacher/family relationships through small care groups over five years of schooling; building community and industry partnerships, including connecting students to health, youth and employment agencies; and professional development for staff.
SHS has developed a culture of inquiry and learning that has empowered teachers to engage with data and take up the challenge of making a real difference to student learning. It has created high performance expectations for both its staff and students. The belief that all students can and do learn has led to many new and exciting initiatives. These include embarking on the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program involving intensive professional learning for staff, expanding our VET offerings to over 25 VET programs and setting up partnerships with 20 providers to accommodate student interests and pathways, and working collaboratively with other schools in innovative programs such as the Boys Lighthouse project.
Our aim has now become to see every student successfully placed in higher and further education, training, employment or in the community.
The school leader’s primary role is to maintain moral stewardship by keeping the school focused on its core values and business. Through providing a range of information to staff in their various teams, the agenda is continually refocused on improving student learning. For example, term by term student achievement data is made available to year level and learning area teams. Questions are asked about how we can improve student outcomes, and what is needed to achieve this. The school leader invites those directly involved with a particular issue to take the initiative and to manage change. Others’ expertise is sought and drawn on as people work collaboratively to solve problems and seek solutions.
At SHS, there are leaders everywhere—formal and informal— among staff, students and parents. School leaders and non-teaching staff smooth the way for this to happen by providing the resources and supporting and valuing the work that teachers do. As is often said, the real work happens in the classroom with teachers and students.
While teachers have little bearing on what a student brings to the classroom, research shows that schools and teachers can make a significant difference to students’ learning. For example, in 2004, nearly 30% of year 8 students at SHS started their high school year below the State’s literacy benchmark. However, through an integrated and focused literacy program over five years, we have seen a higher than State average in our year 11 writing-based literacy assessment (WBLA) results. This is cause for real celebration as staff believe their efforts are having a measurable outcome.
Other indicators of success include many individual and team student, staff and school awards, strong retention of students and staff, a large waiting list in year 8 and high parental and school community satisfaction.
Our quest for continuous improvement led us to enter the Australian Business Excellence Awards in 2004. As a school we went through a rigorous process of self-assessment and an external review to win a Bronze award. This process showed us that, while we were on the right track, there is always more work to be done. Our aim is to demonstrate through the destination data that every student is on a pathway to success.
We need to keep setting new objectives and targets based on relevant and appropriate data that is used wisely. We need to keep monitoring and measuring our progress by getting feedback, having open and reflective dialogue with all stakeholders—staff, students, parents and the broader community—and raising one another to higher levels of expectation and motivation. That, for me as a school leader, is what school improvement is all about.
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