The focus of your work is often helping disadvantaged children. Why is this such a priority for you?
I was very lucky. I had a good family background, a stable family… but all of my teaching has been in low socio-economic areas, low socio-economic schools with high Aboriginal populations. Postcodes shouldn’t determine your destiny. I think every kid is entitled to go to a good school. Every kid should get a good education.
You’ve mentioned that schools are turning into educational eco-systems. How are principals to deal with this?
What I mean by that is that they are changing daily. What we need are educators and principals who have the skills and capabilities to be able to adapt to those changes. So I think our educators need a different skill set. I think we’re still selecting people based on an old skill set. I still think the primary role of a school leader is educational leadership. So it’s about educating the kids, and about working through with teachers, instructional leadership of teachers … But certainly the role has changed significantly and with greater autonomy, a greater emphasis on some of the management parts, which do take away from the leadership that we’re asking from our school leaders.
You’re executive director of ASPA. What do you find most challenging about the role?
I think the biggest challenge is influencing. One of our roles is to try and influence government policy. There’s lots of research that’s done around school leadership. We see that school leadership, health and wellbeing are all big issues on the agenda. It’s a matter of trying to get them as a priority for government because as we get more and more autonomous in our system, as we become more and more accountable, we’re going to need good leaders. And if we’re not helping putting the right people in, there are certainly health and wellbeing implications into the future.
What would you say is the most enjoyable part of your role?
I think it’s the interactions with people at different levels. I also think that one of the things that is satisfying is when you actually see an issue that has been developed through the association actually get some traction. So you see them in position papers, you see them in policy papers ... It’s at that stage you think, ‘we are making a bit of a difference.’
Do you get much time with students these days?
No, I don’t get a lot of interaction with students and it is one of those things that I miss. I think one of the things that we don’t do enough of, particularly from even outside of the school, is we don’t use the resource that students are. Students have great views on lots of things in education. Students are able to provide some really valuable input.
Is there a story during your career that has really stuck with you?
All of the schools I’ve been in have been in low socio-economic areas. In Western Australia, the top academic award is called the Beazley Medal. And the Beazley Medal is awarded to the dux from all of the schools. Back in the early ’90s, one of the students from one of these low socio-economic schools was able to become dux of the whole state. That to me is a story that sort of stuck with me because you don’t see that very often. Most of the top students come from the higher performing, higher socio-economic schools. We had a kid, with a bit of support – because he went through some rough times particularly around Year 10 – so with a bit of support, and a bit of encouragement, and working with him and his family, he came through as the top student in the state that year. That was a really positive thing.
Do you have a core philosophy that you go by? Something that has helped you succeed?
I think it’s about setting challenges. Not only challenges for myself but challenges for the people around me. You have to ask yourself if what you’re doing is making a difference. I think we have to value others. I read somewhere once that if I’m the smartest person in the room, I’m in the wrong room. And I think you’ve got to value the collective wisdom in the room. And that means the teachers, the students, everybody. I think succession of our profession has also been another core mantra. It’s about, ‘How do I make sure that the next group of people are able to do the right role? … Am I leaving things better than when I found them?’
You’re a proponent of the Safe Schools Coalition. Does it sadden you that the program is being defunded in many states?
I find it extremely frustrating because it was derailed by misinformation. The Safe Schools Coalition, to me, has assisted over 1500 teachers, hundreds of schools, to develop skills to enable them to deal with issues that a lot of schools don’t have the capacity to deal with. I think the misinformation that came out, the media taking the views that it did, I just think it’s sad that we’ve lost a program that has done so well … I’m really disappointed because I see that the Safe Schools Coalition has done so much good. And that work may not continue.
What are your views on the potential corporatisation of the education industry that concern so many policy makers?
Well I think it’s up to us to make sure that doesn’t happen. We’ve certainly got to look at the amount of dollars going into education and how those dollars can be used most effectively. I look at some of the things that are happening in the US and the UK, and I see that’s a place that we don’t want to go. So I think we’ve got to be quite active in advocating that what we’ve got in Australia is not too bad. We can tweak it around the edges but there are a hell of a lot of things going on overseas that we don’t even want to look at. And I think that’s a role for us as a profession. We need to be strong in talking about what we believe is best for our kids and our country, and how are we going to develop the best outcomes in the future.
You’re leaving your role as the executive director of ASPA next year. What are your plans going ahead?
I’m certainly looking for something where I can use the knowledge and expertise that I have. I still think I have a lot to give and I don’t want to retire. I want to be involved and active in doing the things that I feel passionate about.
As a leader, I would like to be remembered as... someone who was passionate about what I did and made a difference.
A couple of people outside of education that I admire are... Richard Goyder and Ric Charlesworth.
Away from my work, to wind down, a few things I like to do, are... jog daily, spend time with my family, travel with my wife and cook. I don’t mind cooking.
Three performers, living or dead, I can choose for a concert would be... Harry Chapin, Leonard Cohen and Paul McCartney.
After I retire, I’d like to... travel, but I’d also like to do some volunteer work.