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A challenge from Greg Whitby

At the beginning of the 2021 school year, I wrote to all CEDP staff to share this challenge:

As you would be aware, there is an ongoing debate about the timing of our national day. Reflecting on this, I am writing to urge you to listen to the voices of Aboriginal Australians, particularly in your work transforming learning and teaching for children and young people in western Sydney and the Blue Mountains. 

At the recent Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta System Leaders’ Day, keynote speaker Dr Anita Heiss shared timely inspiration. A proud Wiradjuri woman, Dr Heiss is the editor of the anthology Growing up Aboriginal in Australia, a text you are strongly encouraged to read this year. Schools have been issued with copies, and it’s also available to staff as an audiobook on Sora. 

This is a particularly valuable opportunity to listen to the diverse experiences of Aboriginal Australians, with a particular focus on the formative years of childhood and adolescence. Hear them when they speak to us about what school was like for them, and find out how your students feel about this too. 

Some of my best days at work are when I have the opportunity to listen and experience the leadership of these young people. Sitting down with our students and staff at a Yarn Up or learning from participants in Jarara Indigenous Education Unit programs gives me so much hope in our capacity for change and particularly for Reconciliation. 

We are also working together towards our first Reconciliation Action Plan in 2021. You may also be interested that we will be hosting the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Conference in 2022. The practical resources that Dr Heiss shared last week, and the wisdom of the Jarara Indigenous Education Unit are another source of support for your work.    

“As teachers we are all life long learners and it is important for us to continue to learn and understand Aboriginal culture and we can start with how we demonstrate, contribute and participate with our Indigenous culture at our schools,” Dr Heiss said. She continued to emphasise that symbols are significant and that she hopes that all Australians can enhance their understanding of our history. Read more from the System Leaders’ Day here.

This year, our theme is from curiosity to clarity to challenge. Following on from 26 January, I challenge you to listen and respond to the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, their families and communities. Thank you for all you do to promote equity in your school community and for sharing this leadership. 

Meet Kate Kelly!

St Patrick’s Marist College Dundas Instructional Leader Kate Kelly recently shared her experiences at EdFest, Western Sydney University’s annual Teaching Careers expo. Read more here.  

St Patrick’s Marist College Dundas Instructional Leader Kate Kelly recently shared her experiences at EdFest, Western Sydney University’s annual Teaching Careers expo. Read more here.  

When it comes to schools, equity is where our focus should be

If it takes a village to educate a child, then addressing the inequity that exists is a collective responsibility.

Greg Whitby AM

In 2007, I started a blog as a stimulus for reflection and discussion on how we best deliver schooling in the knowledge age. The blog was titled ‘bluyonder’, to serve as a reminder that we need to think about the future, not the past, when it comes to reimagining schooling for today’s learners. Besides, a good education must orient students towards a better and brighter future. It should provide the opportunities for each child to pursue their natural talents and acquire the knowledge and skills to thrive in an ever-changing world.

Yet here we are at the start of the 2021 school year faced with the reality that so many students are unable to see the blue yonder; unable to access the same opportunities or participate fully in their learning. These are the students for whom disadvantage, disability or difference mean they require a step-up to see over the wall. When we fail to provide these students with the ladder they need, the achievement gap widens. And that’s the inequity issue that exists in Australian schools.

The issue is often framed through a resource/funding lens but it is so much more than dollars spent. The failure of any student at school not only has a life-long personal impact but a social one. We know from research that the outlook for those who do not complete secondary school or acquire the relevant knowledge and skills have limited prospects and are less able to participate fully in society. We also know that poor mental health among our young people is already at alarming levels in Australia.

If it takes a village to educate a child, then addressing the inequity that exists is a collective responsibility. One that is shared by governments, unions, school sectors and schools. After all, schools are social communities, not industrial factories.To ignore this diminishes their capacity to be places of inclusion and fairness for all.

Equity does not mean we should be lowering our expectations or limiting goals. Rather, it is the acknowledgement that improving the learning outcomes of each child reflects the quality of teacher instruction to meet their individual needs. That may require modification of a learning task or the learning environment but it is underpinned by the belief that every child can learn and achieve.

International data shows that equity and educational excellence are inextricably linked, so it stands that if we aren’t addressing inequity, then excellence is harder to achieve. The way forward is not more of what has gone before. What the past has demonstrated, if anything, is that structures that reflect a one size fits all approach to meeting students’ needs and move students lock step towards achieving narrow, easily-measured and strictly predetermined goals, do violence towards the development of responsible, resourceful and creative learners.

The industrial processes and structures of yesterday’s schools have caused us to lose sight of what matters most in education – the individual child. It is time to demolish those walls and return to a place which underscores the importance of teachers having the time and space to know their students as individuals, to engage in ongoing professional learning, to use student data effectively to identify gaps in learning and the opportunity to employ a wide range of flexible teaching and organisational strategies to respond to those differences. In other words: to personalise learning so that each student continues to develop their abilities and moves towards becoming independent, fully-functioning, contributing members of society. This approach is fundamentally liberating in helping to break the chains imposed by inequity, ignorance and inadequate resourcing.

There are many forces that seek to deny teachers the opportunities to exercise their professionalism, schools the opportunities to exercise innovation and students the opportunities to succeed. The only way to create a brighter future for our nation, is to ensure we create a brighter future for our students. That’s the horizon I want to be walking towards.

Curiosity to Clarity to Challenge

Reflections on the 2020 Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta System Leaders’ Day

The community of St Joseph’s Primary Kingswood celebrates NAIDOC with members of the Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta Jarara Indigenous Education Unit team, November 2020.

Bishop Vincent and colleagues

I’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of this land. Like many of you today, I’m joining this symposium from the lands of the Dharug people. We pay our respects to elders: past, present and emerging, remembering that this always was and always will be Aboriginal land. In acknowledging Country, we recommit ourselves to justice and in particular to better outcomes for Aboriginal children and young people through education. 

It is because we know that we need to do better for these young people, that CEDP is now working towards our first Reconciliation Action Plan. In this same spirit, each of you have been asked to read, ‘Growing up Aboriginal in Australia’. I’m delighted Professor Anita Heiss, editor of this powerful anthology and proud Wiradjuri woman is joining us today. 

“…we must all of us be driven by an unflinching focus on equity as the driver of our work”.

-Greg Whitby AM

Welcome to the 2021 school year. Despite my very best efforts to maintain the tradition of us gathering in person for this important day, we begin 2021 as we ended 2020 – meeting over Zoom. While I am grateful that we have at our disposal the technology that allows us to stay connected, I am looking forward to the time when we can once again be in the same space working together as a community of leaders.

Speaking of 2020, I am not all that keen to dwell too much on the year past. I suspect you might be keen to put it behind you also. The words ‘unprecedented’, ‘the new normal’, ‘pivot’, ‘unchartered territory’, ‘once-in-a-generation’ and, of course,‘you’re on mute’ have become the markers for a year that has been (sorry) like no other!

Seriously, we continue to feel the impact of the pandemic. This will continue for some time yet; at the same time, it’s important that in 2021, we extract from the past 12 months what we have learned, identify what we need to change and lay out a roadmap for how we will lead our school communities and teams to be agents of change. 

That process has already begun, particularly through ‘Disruptive Voices’. With input from hundreds of school and office staff, this project began to capture some of what we learned last year and continues to inform our thinking about what we need to do next. Think about how differently we are doing things now from what we were 12 months ago with

  • learning and teaching
  • staff collaboration and professional learning
  • communication with parents and the broader community
  • using technology and data
  • supporting student and staff wellbeing.

The way we are making decisions as leaders has been changing too. The meaningful and shared challenge of the last 12 months has reminded us why shared, collaborative leadership is more important than ever. 

If you have been following some of the stories in the media about education in the past months, you will know that there is a lot happening and some of it gives cause for concern. Unfortunately, the policy direction of State and Federal governments is, in my opinion, making things harder, not easier, for every young person to have an experience of school that is meaningful for them with a ‘back to basics’ mentality underpinning decisions about schooling. 

What I find particularly concerning right now is the reinforcement of a culture where those who are prepared to think differently about what schools can be are seen as ideological crusaders and experimentalists, in much the same way that political debate has polarised around constructions of ‘left-wing’ and ‘right-wing’ thinking. It has become less a contest of ideas and more a clash of education ideologies. This creates barriers to meaningful change. The debate should be robust but it must be driven by the research and the data, and that isn’t always happening.

Despite this, it is our role to continue to challenge the status quo when it means that some students miss out. All of us have a responsibility to keep exploring how we can give young people a better experience of school. After all, that is our work. It’s not about building the schools of the future – we need to build them now. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “the future depends on what you do today.”

It is in this spirit that I officially launch our theme for 2021 – Curiosity to Clarity to Challenge. This language is not new to any of us, We are building on where we have been in previous years with the invitation now to accept the challenge to do things better as a system of leaders, following a strategic path and common goals.

It starts with a shared purpose:

Catholic education is a work of love, for the full human development of students, grounded in the person of Jesus Christ and at the service of society. All staff share in the evangelising mission of the Church as they work to bring about a synthesis of faith, life and culture in their communities.

The system of schools in the Diocese of Parramatta is a work of the Church, under the leadership of our Bishop and in collaboration with priests, parents, students and staff, to realise the mission of bringing the person of Jesus Christ into the lives of the young people in our care and their families.

And a clear intent:

To transform the learning of each student and enrich the professional lives of staff within a Catholic learning community.

There are four key four priorities:

  1. Mission is countercultural
  2. Learning is owned by the learner
  3. Equity is the norm
  4. Everyone is a leader.

Finally, we commit to a culture of service that makes everyone

  1. Welcomed;
  2. Valued; and
  3. Confident.

This is our shared mission and should inform the work of every school and every office team.

I am delighted that we will welcome back Michael McDowell as one of our presenters today. Michael has been on our journey to transform learning for some time now. We received a great response to Michael’s presentation at the System Leaders Symposium late last year so we invited him back. I know that his presentation today will help to further sharpen our thinking.

I remain extremely proud of the work that has been done on our Draft New Curriculum for Religious Education, to be launched in 2021. This distinct and inspired approach to sharing our faith with children and young people demonstrates the very spirit of challenge ahead of us this year. 

I’m also conscious that you are working towards the new K to 2 curriculum, from development to testing and forthcoming implementation. This work has the potential to bring extraordinary change for some of our youngest learners, and the impacts will be lasting. 

I want to thank Bishop Vincent for his insightful address and thank him, along with our Episcopal Vicar for Education and Formation Fr Chris de Souza, for their continued support of our work. 

I conclude with the words of Sir Ken Robinson, who sadly passed away in 2020. Sir Ken was influential in changing the narrative about what schools should be. I think they capture why the search for a better way to do it is so important:

“I believe our only hope for the future is to adopt a new concept of human ecology, one in which we start to reconstitute our conception of the richness of human capacity…We have to rethink the fundamental principles in which we are educating our children.” 

As eloquent as these words are, Sir Ken is not the agent of change – you are. What makes the difference is what happens in the schools.  

As many of you are aware, I recently spent several months “out-of-action” as a result of routine knee surgery. This was a rare opportunity to reflect on our shared work of transforming learning and teaching. I returned to my post more thoughtful, and with an even stronger sense of the urgency of the change that each of you is leading at the frontline. We have your back! And, more than ever, we must all of us be driven by an unflinching focus on equity as the driver of our work.

I wish each of you success in this Mission work ahead. May your achievements and rewards be many.