At the core of my work as principal was a heartfelt dedication to student outcomes. That is the reason I became a teacher in the first place. I loved teaching. I really wanted to shape young people's lives, inspire them and educate them. I wanted to show them they could be something more wonderful than they ever thought possible. A teacher’s impact on a young adult continues into the next generation. It makes sense that one of my core values as a principal was to ensure that each student graduated from my schools with hope and the anticipation of a bright future.
As a principal, I learned that it is the quality of graduate that sells our schools, and I always strived to ensure I had strong, sustainable enrolments to support the school's viability. I believe that the school's reputation rested with my focus on ensuring we had high-quality graduates who could represent us admirably.
I made a deep commitment to making a difference in the lives of our students and our community. I was always concerned for holistic student outcomes, educating the whole person based on high expectations for all students. I maintained uncompromising high expectations of all teachers that set and supported excellent student outcomes.
I was able to resolve the tension that existed between a focus on academic outcomes and a focus on holistic outcomes by working hard to ensure both outcomes were given priority. I knew that my schools, being independent schools in a market-driven, competitive environment, would be judged by the academic results of our students and the quality of the graduates. The expectation and anticipation that this created in the school community manifested itself as real and subliminal pressure on me to perform. Whether right or wrong, the principal's performance in many independent schools in Australia is judged by the annual release of the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR).
As a principal, I purposefully raised parents’ expectations that their child would graduate with personal qualities that would enable them to go on to be successful. Students could expect meaningful opportunities after they graduated, to take on leadership roles, and to be productive contributors to society.
This meant I had to ensure that the outcomes matched the claims I had made. The claims must be more than rhetoric. Maintaining prestige in high fee-paying schools is unashamedly about excellent graduate options after year 12, including entry to university. It is not an unreasonable expectation from parents, given that our schools' public relations and marketing certainly imply this is the case.
Principals know that their leadership and their school's programs and opportunities are designed to produce the outcomes for graduates that the community expect. The school's key messages about graduate destinations and their success after year 12 add to the parents' expectations, which results in demands on the principal to produce. Principals are under significant pressure to ensure that parents' expectations are being met and that the school caters for each individual child.
This is a dilemma for principals of independent schools. The publishing of league tables at the end of the academic year by the Sydney Morning Herald, and merit lists by NSW Educations Standards Authority (NESA), means that principals have to keep their eye on academic results. How important is it that a school receives publicity based upon the top 1 per cent of students or the top 10 per cent, or the ATAR mean? It mattered most to me that each and every graduate had quality options after year 12. Governments should ban the publishing of year 12 results.
I felt I was building an image of a student's future as a means of providing a competitive edge. Parents pay fees, and because of this, they had high expectations of our school to deliver excellent outcomes for their child. Because principals are aware of their responsibility to meet parents' expectations, they commit fully to ensuring that students graduate with opportunities and a bright future.
It is terribly important that you know and understand your independent school's context, which is local and positioned in Australia's broader independent school context. We must serve the needs of fee-paying parents who, in the case of a preschool to year 12 enrolment, could be making a fifteen-year investment in your school. Fee-paying parents rightfully have expectations and can also have hard-nosed expectations drawn from a commercial perspective. I have found parents treat paying school fees like a business transaction, similar to the transactions they have with their solicitor or accountant. They pay you to deliver an outcome.
Image by Leon Macapagal