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18 April 2016

Independent Public Schools - a new beginning

Ros Thomas looks at what it means to be an Independent Public School, how parents and the local community are getting involved and the great things that are happening in WA schools.

The walk to my children's primary school has been a constant in my life for the past 12 years. It was in 2004 that I began towing a small flaxen-haired boy, dwarfed by his backpack, to kindy. By the time he started Year 1, he was skipping to school trailing his new brother in a pram. A few years later, both my boys were at primary school and their baby sister was desperate to join them.

I now know the path from my front door to the school gate by heart. I've memorised the footpath for potholes and jutting pavers that could tip up a scooter or skin the knees of a budding skateboarder. The school grounds are as familiar to me as my own backyard. I belong there almost as much as I do at home.

Last year, we became an Independent Public School. Energised, the teachers and staff were abuzz. The kids were proud but weren't sure why. We mums and dads gathered on the veranda and dissected this new development in myriad conversations: What would change? How would our children benefit?

Some of us were apprehensive, some were daunted, but most of us were excited about embracing this new phase in our school's life. And we were all eager to know more.

What I discovered is that becoming an Independent Public School is not an end in itself. It's a beginning.

Until recently, a central Perth office determined how public schools operated – controlling their budgets, selecting their teachers and running their education programs – whether students lived in the metropolitan area, the Wheatbelt or the Kimberley. Governance was old-school, and for good reason.

Australia's post-war baby boom saw more than four million children enter the school system between 1946 and 1961. In WA, this necessitated the rapid development of a large-scale administration responsible for some of the most remote schools in the world.

Now, the Government wants schools to be a more vital and vibrant part of their local community. It wants parents to have more input. And it wants each school to reflect the needs and aspirations of its students and their families.

The Independent Public Schools initiative was introduced in Western Australia in 2009. A small number of schools was selected to take part. Since then, more than half the State's 800 public schools have become independent.

They remain part of the public school system. But they are empowered to manage their own budgets, choose their staff and decide how their school operates. A school board helps principals develop the strategic direction of the school.

Geoff Metcalf had been principal of what is now Roseworth Primary School in Girrawheen for 13 years before it was selected as one of the first Independent Public Schools in 2010.

"At the time, 75% of our students were the children of new immigrants. Many didn't speak English at home," he says.

"We were trying to build a strong, unified school culture but we had a reputation for being the 'hard luck school'. I can remember new teachers walking in on their first day and, by lunchtime, their keys would be back on my desk and I'd find them crying in the carpark."

Geoff believes becoming an Independent Public School was the tipping point for Roseworth: "It sent an important message to our parents. The Department of Education was basically saying, 'We think you're meeting the needs of your kids. We think your school has the capacity to do great things. We want you to have greater control over your operations and the responsibility to make decisions for yourselves.'"

Geoff, looking back, smiles with pride.

"Immediately, morale went up. Mums and dads felt they were being heard. One of the first things we did was set up a supported playgroup. We wanted to create a sense of belonging, to bond with those families whose children we'd be educating. It was a two-way loyalty system: we could identify kids who'd need extra support and in turn, families trusted us even before their children started kindergarten."

Geoff says that Independent Public School status empowered his school to choose the kinds of teachers who were passionate about helping children of immigrant families.

"When positions became available, we were free to go out into the community, tell our school's story and attract the kinds of teachers and staff who wanted to work with us.

"Soon we were getting 200 applications for every teaching spot that came up. It was a marvellous turn-around. For the first time, we felt we were making decisions that were right for our school."

Pam Pollard and Beeliar Primary School students explore the school's new nature playground.

Pam Pollard is another principal who firmly believes becoming an Independent Public School in 2013 was the turning point for Beeliar Primary School, which she ran from 2009 to 2015.

"We had some children with challenging behaviours," she tells me. "When I first started at Beeliar, some parents were worried about sending their children to us. Changing the culture of the school was the first thing we had to do and becoming an Independent School gave us the confidence to start really trying.

"I decided we needed a mentoring program for teachers. The board agreed. I didn't need to ask for central office permission or funding. I wanted to make sure each of our subject areas had a 'teacher leader.' They would go into classrooms and work with the existing teacher, helping to plan lessons or offering new approaches to teaching and learning.

"I think we created better teachers. In fact, I know we created better teachers. My deputies and I would go into classrooms and ask the kids what they were learning, how they were learning it. The children were able to articulate how they were going in their lessons. That made them feel important. And we saw a massive improvement in their attitude to learning."

Pam tells me staff documented the playground 'hot-spots' where incidents occurred between children. Armed with these statistics, teachers devised a lunchtime program of competitions to re-focus students, rewarding them if they participated.

"We created a motto for our school," she says. "'Stand Tall.' That motto was the lynchpin that held together our classroom management and pastoral care initiatives. The kids liked the idea of standing tall. The board embraced the idea. And we got results. In 2011 we had 48 suspension incidents. By 2014 we were down to four. The community began to think differently about us. The entire culture of Beeliar changed over seven years and being an Independent Public School enabled that."

Marina Hogan with daughter Ava and her classmates at Subiaco Primary School.

Marina Hogan became the board chair at Subiaco Primary School shortly after it gained Independent Public School status in 2011. Passionate about education, she wanted to be involved in the future direction of her children's school."As a board, our role is to set the strategic direction for the school, with the aim to help deliver the best educational outcomes for our kids," she says.

"We now have a diverse but complementary group of people on our board who have collaborated on a dynamic business plan which will enable our school to thrive. We've held focus groups, brainstormed ideas and consulted with the community. Being an Independent Public School enables us to improve the flow of information between the school and parents. Importantly, it has allowed us to appoint community representatives who lend us a different perspective and offer valuable input about the school's place in the community."

Marina is one of many who believe the Independent Schools initiative helps parents feel a sense of ownership towards their school.

"No other recent initiative in education in this State has been so transformative," she says. "I think most people involved in the school would agree that becoming an Independent Public School has led to positive change and growth for our school."

Tonight, as I write, my 6-year-old daughter is hunched over her exercise book counting sums on her fingers. The TV is off. Her 8-year-old brother is cutting up plastic bags for his recycling project. They're absorbed and ready for another big school day tomorrow. And I'm keen to be involved in where their education takes them.

Find out more about Independent Public Schools.

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