Penny wise: Why a good school is about more than money

Peer support … experts agree that school culture plays the strongest role in academic outcomes.

What do you think of when you hear the words “good school”? The first images that spring to mind might be of tidy grounds; well-maintained buildings; exuberant but courteous students; enthusiastic, knowledgeable teachers; and an overall air of diligence and positivity.

Most of us would agree that good schools are happy schools where staff and students are motivated to high performance by a genuine affection for and pride in their school.

So, if we all have a similar idea of what makes a good school, why is it so hard to achieve in practice?

Last year, the OECD released its latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report to much hand-wringing in the country’s media as it revealed that Australia’s students had slipped even further behind their counterparts in 72 countries since the 2012 report. This reflected an overall decline since 2000 both comparatively and in terms of absolute scores.

PISA Senior Manager Peter Adams, a former teacher himself at Melbourne’s Toorak College, told Education HQ this week that there is cause for concern over this “persistent downward trend” particularly in the realm of mathematics. Adams emphasised the need to learn from the pedagogical practices of more academically successful countries and pointed to the very high levels of reported bullying and stress amongst Australian students as impediments to their academic performance.

A lack of discipline is another factor with both PISA and the Australian Centre for Educational Research’s 2015 Trends in International Maths and Science Study (TIMSS) finding that far too many Australian classrooms are unruly with teachers practising “crowd control” at the expense of teaching.

Disruptive behaviour in the classroom has a measurable impact on a school’s academic quality. The TIMSS report found that: “There was a clear relationship between the achievement of Australian students and teachers’ reports of their school being safe and orderly, with more safe and orderly schools associated with higher achievement.”

That is perhaps why the news is not all bad. One sector of our education system — independent schools — is producing superlative results across the board.

The PISA 2015 scores showed that Australian students attending independent schools ranked in the top five internationally on every measure and they are the world’s best readers, outranking every other student cohort in terms of literacy and reading comprehension. These are fantastically good results, especially considering Australia’s relatively small population, but it begs the question: what are these schools doing differently?

Many people may assume that it comes down to resources. Australia’s most famous private schools are its oldest and most expensive and, consequently, its best-resourced. But these schools make up a tiny fraction of the sector with the vast majority of independent schools being low- or medium-fee institutions serving their local suburbs, ethnic and/or religious communities on a shoestring budget. Yet, they make an outsize contribution to the sector’s academic success. This is where the essential traits of a good school come into play: funding and facilities are important, experts says, but, ultimately, education is underpinned by enculturation.

“PISA shows that the school a student attends has an impact on outcomes,” TIMSS lead author Sue Thomson says. Her recommendation to lift Australia’s academic rankings is for schools to “provide high-quality teaching and foster a culture of high expectations for all students, alongside the development of practices to foster excellence in all schools in order to harness the influence of students on each other as a valuable learning resource.”

With their autonomy and emphasis on community, independent schools are able to cultivate precisely these characteristics. Barker College head Phillip Heath makes the point that: “Independent schools are recognised as having strong school cultures, built on high expectations of all students. There is a focus on development of the full human, including spiritual and character development, through religious, pastoral care and wellbeing programs.”

These qualities can’t be bought. In answer to the question: “Does money buy strong performance in PISA?” The OECD says, beyond a certain point, no. It cites the example of South Korea, which spends relatively little on education but consistently tops the PISA rankings. This is because cultural values are the overriding determinant of a nation’s academic achievement, the OECD says. “Money alone can’t buy a good education system. Strong performers in PISA are those countries and economies that believe — and act on the belief — that all children can succeed in school.”

Money can’t buy you love, nor, it seems, a love of learning. It may take money to run a school, but only its values can make it great.


PISA results don’t look good but before we panic, let’s look at what we can learn from the latest test — Stewart Riddle, The Conversation, December 6, 2016

PISA Senior Manager says Australia’s performance concerns justified — Chelsea Attard, Education HQ, June 13, 2017

Our man in PISA – Melbourne educator creates testing times in Paris — Sally Robinson, The Age, May 8, 2016–melbourne-educator-creates-testing-times-in-paris-20160502-gojufk.html

TIMSS 2015: Reporting Australia’s Results — Sue Thomson, Nicole Wernert, Elizabeth O’Grady, Sima Rodrigues, Australian Centre for Educational Research, 2017

How Australia’s Independent Schools Sector Rated in 2015 — Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia, December 7, 2016.

New PISA results show education slide – it’s time to stop the slide — Sue Thomson, The Conversation, December 3, 2013

Does money buy strong performance in PISA? — PISA in Focus 13, February 2012

The Scots College comes to Sydney’s south

Bright future … The Scots College is opening Brighton Preparatory School at Dolls Point next year.

Sydney families may soon be heard to cry, “Go south, young man” with the opening of a new independent school in Sydney’s southern suburbs next year.

The Scots College, one of Sydney’s oldest boys’ schools, has announced the establishment of a preparatory school to serve the College’s Botany Bay-area community.

Situated on the picturesque waterfront at Dolls Point, The Scots College Brighton Preparatory School will, from February, welcome boys from Kindergarten to Year 4, with Years 5 and 6 set to follow in subsequent years.

The primary school has been founded to meet local demand, The Scots College Principal Dr Ian Lambert says. “The College attracts many students from the area already so a new preparatory school locally just makes sense.”

“Scots” has a long history in the district. In 1893, it accepted its first class of students at its original site on The Grand Parade in Brighton-Le-Sands, before moving to the current Bellevue Hill address two years later.

The prep school’s name pays tribute to the College’s past and the school’s bayside location, Dr Lambert says.

As a part of The Scots College, students at Brighton Prep will benefit from its Brave Hearts Bold Minds philosophy of education, which fosters a culture of excellence achieved through “adventure, curiosity, creativity and growth”.

Being a non-selective school, Scots’ pedagogical focus extends beyond academic success to develop the whole character, with a special emphasis on experiential education.

“Sport is synonymous with the Scots experience,” Dr Lambert says and the new Brighton Preparatory School’s setting makes it ideally located to build on the College’s strong sailing program.

The Scots College’s new school has already received significant notice in local media thanks to its role in preserving a much-loved landmark — Primrose House.

Historic site … Primrose House at Dolls Point in Sydney’s south.

Fearing that it would be demolished, Dolls Point residents fought to protect the stately mansion after it was put up for sale by the NSW Health Department last year.

The College’s establishment of Brighton Preparatory School on the site is welcomed by the Dolls Point community with the NSW member for Rockdale, Steve Kamper, telling The Leader, that the project “will build on the heritage value of Primrose House and provide a new school in a beautiful location.”

The historic property will now undergo a full restoration to return it to its Victorian grandeur. The conservation effort will retain the building’s original design and features, such as floorboards and fireplaces, while incorporating contemporary facilities.

“The College has a history of caring for heritage buildings. Primrose House very much fits in that category,” says Dr Lambert. “We look forward to becoming the new custodians of its rich heritage for future generations.”

Brighton Preparatory School enrollments are now open. For more information including school bus services to please contact 9391 7668 or visit

Or take the opportunity to meet in person with staff from The Scots College and a variety of other schools servicing Sydney’s south at the Southern Sydney School Expo on Sunday, June 4.

At the Expo, parents are encouraged to engage with school representatives and explore their offerings in detail.

Teachers and administrators are happy to answer all your questions to help you make the best decision for your child.

This is a wonderful opportunity not to be missed.

The Southern Sydney School Expo
Where: Novotel Sydney Brighton Beach, Cnr Grand Parade and Princess St, Brighton-Le-Sands
When: Sunday, June 4, 2017
Time: 10 am to 4pm
Cost: Free

For more information contact Dorothy Willoughby on 0412 233 742.

Beyond Hogwarts: the real-life benefits of boarding

Extended family … Cranbrook School offers boarders excellent pastoral care in a supportive environment.

If you didn’t attend a boarding school yourself, your impressions of residential schools have probably been formed, at least in part, by Hollywood.

It seems that every decade produces an era-defining tale set in a boarding school. From the 60s counter-culture touchstone, If, to Australia’s own haunting 70s classic, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Dead Poets Society in the 80s, and, of course, the Harry Potter blockbusters of recent times, there is no shortage of movies that centre on the intrigue and exhilaration of adolescent communal living.

Reality is usually a little more mundane than the big screen version but that hasn’t slowed the resurgence of Australia’s boarding schools.

Boarding is well and truly back in vogue with more than 25,000 students nation-wide choosing to live at their school — an increase of 25 per cent over the last decade.

Many of these students come from rural and regional areas where boarding is often a necessity but changing family dynamics are seeing more city-based and international students opting to board.

In families where both parents work full-time, the close supervision and access to extracurricular activities that boarding provides makes it an attractive option. In the senior years, students are increasingly choosing to board so they can concentrate on their studies free of the distractions of home and the time-drain of commuting.

Living at school offers students many unique advantages including:

Academic support and extra tuition
When you live at school a teacher is never very far away to lend a hand with a sticky problem or read through a draft essay. Allocated study periods ensure that students have adequate time in their days to get through their homework and no excuses for not doing it.

A structured environment
Boarding is characterised by routine and stability. Students learn good habits early on and for busy parents working long hours, the inbuilt structure of boarding environments is a boon. At schools such as The King’s School in Parramatta, fully a quarter of boarders are Sydney-based; boarding not out of need but because their parents want them to benefit from the “boarding experience”, the school says.

Extracurricular opportunities
Living at school means never missing footy practice again. Even better, it allows students to participate in everything on offer and try new sports and activities. Most boarding schools emphasise physical activity to help promote resilience and teamwork and keep their students fit and healthy, but creative and intellectual opportunities abound. Meanwhile, regular excursions, entertainment and social events keep students busy and engaged with life outside of school. Boarding is rarely boring.

By its nature, boarding promotes independence and self-management; skills that prove useful throughout a lifetime.

“Boarders develop resilience and independence at an earlier age,” says Wenona principal, Dr Briony Scott. “It’s not that they grow up quicker but they definitely do become more independent.

“Boarders learn to look after themselves really well. They learn to look after their things and take responsibility for their time.”

Kate Obermayer, a Cochlear executive and former Wenona boarder agrees, telling the Weekly Times: “Boarding gave me an inner dependence on myself, which continues to help me on a daily basis in my role — no one is cracking the whip except me.

“I have to be proactive. I have to think about all angles. I have to be organised. I learnt all of that at boarding school.”

Lifelong friendships
Close-quarters living promotes tight bonds between students that often carry through their whole lives. Schools with a significant international boarding cohort like Cranbrook in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs offer students the opportunity to make “friends from all corners of the globe”, the school says.

This view is supported by research conducted by the University of Adelaide. A 2004 survey of boarding school students revealed that the overwhelming majority of respondents had formed “intense, enduring” friendships at boarding school with fellow students from around the world. The report author concluded that for these students boarding “was a significant factor in fostering independence and embracing cultural diversity”, which helped to “prepare them for life in an increasingly global world”.

Overall, the respondents viewed boarding with fondness and appreciation. As one survey respondent wrote: “For all Grammar’s faults, I wouldn’t exchange this experience for anything in the world!”

Hogwarts may be a fantasy but it seems that, for many students, boarding does, in fact, add a touch of magic to school life.


Boarding schools appealing to the city as much as the country — Emily Parkinson, Australian Financial Review, May 6, 2016

Wenona alumnae explain how boarding at the North Sydney school has shaped their lives — Weekly Times, November 1, 2016

An Australian co-educational boarding school as a crucible for life: a humanistic sociological study of students’ attitudes from their own memoirs — Matthew A White, PhD Thesis, School of Education, University of Adelaide, 2004