What Makes a Successful School?
You can tell a school that is doing well. It self promotes. Staff brag and share results, parents congratulate themselves on their good choice and kids say, “Our school is the best”. The powerful thing about all this positive talk is that it creates a culture of pride and success. It creates a mindset that allows for innovation and experimentation and it positively reinforces people who work hard to keep working hard or work harder. Most importantly, it has a powerful affect on kids and their learning. It’s like magic.
The ultimate reward for a school should be when a child is able to say, “I am in the very best place for me”. That sort of statement should apply to kids with all different talents and ambitions. It isn’t just about academic success. Children need to feel nurtured and supported in their physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. They need to feel they are seen and valued. Only then will they move into the comfort that allows flow and deep learning.
Creating this magic is the challenge. Over the last 10 years Santa Maria College has actively worked towards creating a culture of success. It’s worked. The college’s academic record speaks for itself; both amongst Catholic schools and the traditional heavy weights on laegue tables. These are impressive results for a school that is not academically selective and does not offer academic scholarships.
So how is this achieved? Principal Ian Elder was recognised in 2016 by the Principals Australia Institute for his outstanding leadership. I talked to him about what creates a winning culture in schools and he identified these ten points.
Ten Game Changers for Schools
- Appoint the right people and place them in the right positions. Don’t let staff stay in the same place doing the same thing for too long. There needs to be enthusiasm and a sense of direction for every staff member, including the principal.
- Understand that first and foremost, you must be an outstanding school. After that you can be whatever you want… whether it is religious, sporting, innovative, performing arts, leadership, etc. Parents and students need to know and appreciate that order of priority too.
- Ask the right questions of the right people. Constant communication between staff, students and parents is desirable and necessary. A child should be able to say, “My teacher knows me and understands how I learn”.
- Ask, “Could it be better?” No matter how great it is, no school can afford to be complacent. The way you’ve always done things may be very good, but could it be better? Listen to parents, students and staff. Don’t listen in order to counter or defend, but to really understand. Explain the direction and decisions of the school in order to make sure everyone is ‘on the same page’. The culture is ‘Yes, you can’, not ‘Yes, you will’.
- One on one communication with students is vital. Yes…sometimes it is easier to deliver information to a whole group, but sometimes the time spent on one to one meetings is worth it. Every student at SMC has private interviews about their subject selection and about their academic progress in Senior Years. They are seen and heard and their opinions and ideas are valued. Education doesn’t happen to them, it happens with them. This is where the quietly disengaged are often discovered. They don’t make a fuss, they get decent grades, but they aren’t striving or excelling. One interview can completely turn that around.
- Trust students. Say yes to students when you can. When you make too many rules the objective becomes, “How can we break the rules?” Accept that boundaries will be pushed and some kids will mess up. But most wont. Most will grow when they are trusted and allowed responsibility.
- Trust staff. Once you have the right staff in the right place, leave them be. If you give someone responsibility, give them authority. Tell them, “You can!”
- Set expectations and give feedback. Students need to be told exactly what is expected of them. For example, it isn’t alright to leave an exam early. You must stay and check your work and improve it…every time. Statements like, “Try your best” can’t be measured. “Improve by 5% using these particular strategies” is better. Likewise, specific feedback is incredibly important to students. A mark of 7/10 and a comment of ‘good’ achieves nothing. It fails to tell the student how to improve. Similarly, staff need specific feedback and coaching. Successful schools have a culture of strong professional development and feedback.
- Celebrate success, both internally and externally. Santa Maria College has an Achievers’ Assembly at the beginning of every year where the students who excelled in their final exams for Year 12 are celebrated. Success is also posted on Facebook and in local papers and in any other way appropriate. The culture of success is reliant on buy-in from community as well as the school.
- Develop a culture of ongoing learning and respect among staff. Kids see the way staff treat each other and that is what they mimic. They also see teachers learning; getting further qualifications, doing professional reading, learning from each other, learning from students and learning from mistakes. In successful schools staff are involved at a systemic level. An academic leader in the school should have marked external exams and been on committees and focus groups that help determine the future of education. A school needs its finger on the pulse.
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Linda Stade has worked in various teaching and management roles in education for twenty-five years. She has worked in government and private schools, country and city, single sex and co-ed. Currently she is the Research Officer at Santa Maria College, Western Australia. She has a Facebook page here