The independent school advantage: student engagement

From girls to Renaissance women … nurturing student engagement is central to Wenona School’s teaching practice.

Disruptive behaviour, talking back, schoolwork avoidance. These are some of the telltale signs of a disengaged student. Media headlines tend to highlight extreme misbehaviour in schools but low-intensity resistance to learning is far more common — and equally problematic.

A recent Grattan Institute report found that up to 40 per cent of Australian students are effectively tuned out in any given year. The consequences for their education and that of their fellow students are dire.

Disengaged students quickly fall behind with their performance trailing their peers by up to two years, on average. The difficulty of teaching children with insufficient base knowledge is stressful for teachers and hinders the progress of the entire class, the report found.

Study authors Peter Goss and Julie Sonnemann have called for urgent reforms. Their recommendations are two-fold: augmented teacher training that incorporates specific classroom management strategies and the development of techniques to establish a constructive learning environment in the classroom.

The overall aim of teaching should be learning — now and into the future, say the researchers.

“The teacher’s ambition should not necessarily be a quiet classroom, but a genuinely productive class. The broader aims are to help students feel comfortable, be confident in their own abilities, be willing to participate and make mistakes, and be keen to challenge themselves in learning.

And effective teaching goes further: creating an environment that not only makes learning possible now, but also teaches attitudes and behaviours that enhance learning and success in later life. Student skills in self-regulation, such as self-monitoring and self-evaluation, are vital for life-long learning,” the report states.

International research bears out these findings. The UK’s Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has assessed the impact of various components of the educational experience on learning outcomes based on worldwide evidence. Assessing everything from physical aspects such as the built environment and digital technology to parental involvement and teaching methods, the results show that teaching children meta-cognition skills such as reasoning and self-evaluation are the most effective strategies for improving engagement and lifting academic results.

As EEF chief executive Kevan Collins told Quartz, “Getting children to think and talk about their own learning more explicitly can be one of the most effective ways to improve academic outcomes.”

Independent schools are well aware of the benefits of this teaching style and have fully embraced it.

An exemplar is the Renaissance Woman educational framework found at North Sydney’s Wenona School. The school says this holistic practice is “modelled on the Socratic method of teaching, a form of cooperative dialogue and debate that encourages critical thinking; there are no ‘right answers’ in the course. The point is to consider, contemplate and question.

Strengthening student engagement is of primary importance at Wenona. “We explore ways to enhance our girls’ engagement and connectedness, including providing opportunities for them to learn to be present with themselves without distraction. Encouraging this capacity for reflection and self-awareness promotes self-confidence and a stronger sense of identity, building all-important resilience.”

The Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) has found that independent schools have the most deeply engaged students and this is due to the nature of the schools themselves.

Family background and a student’s inherent motivation play a significant role but on the centrality of schools, ACER is unequivocal: “It does matter which school a student attends,” the organisation says. This, ACER explains, is because the highest levels of engagement are found in schools where “students believe that their school has a good school climate, that is one where they have high quality teachers, effective discipline, high levels of student learning and a positive school spirit.”

Research shows that academic achievement is closely correlated with student engagement. “There is a mutually reinforcing relationship between engagement, wellbeing and outcomes. Engaged students do better and doing better increases engagement,” says the NSW Government’s Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation.

The excellent HSC results attained by independent schools throughout the state are testament to the positive learning climate found in these schools and the deep engagement they cultivate in students.

To learn more about what makes independent schools so successful, visit the North Shore School Expo, August 5-6, at the Concourse in Chatswood.



Engaging Students: Creating Classrooms that Improve Learning — Peter Goss and Julie Sonneman, The Grattan Institute, February 2017

Teaching and Learning Toolkit — Education Endowment Foundation, 2017

We’re asking kids all the wrong questions in school — Jenny Anderson, Quartz, July 7, 2017

Student engagement with school: individual and school level influences — Sue Fullerton, ACER, July 2002

Student Wellbeing — Literature review, Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation, NSW Education and Communities, May 2015.


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.