From Rhetoric to Reality: Creating a Culture of Success in Secondary Schools


This speech was given by invitation to principal Christine Cawsey at the University of Tasmania for the Centre for Educational Attainment on July 16 2015 in recognition of the outstanding work being done at Rooty Hill HS.

UTAS Symposium Presentation 

16 July 2015

Christine Cawsey AM


In any conversation about the wide range of performance of secondary schools in Australia the first question that is usually asked is: What do secondary schools need to do to raise aspirations, participation and attainment?

The assumption in this question is that that low expectations and low achievement are the responsibility of the school, rather than the responsibility of governments, educational systems, the community and schools.

By contrast, for principals and schools facing community cultures of low expectations, poor participation and disengagement, the challenge is how to shift the school culture to one of success.

According to the ACOSS report released on July 2 this year- one in seven Australian children live in poverty. In Sydney it is over 15%. Almost all these children attend government schools and, on any measure (health, employment, income, education) they have poorer outcomes in the Australian education system than they would have in comparable systems like Canada.

This presentation discusses how principals and school teams make choices in their planning, change platforms and strategies to create a culture of success, often in the face of significant funding, social and political inequity.


The Prevailing Rhetoric

In the last few months I have been increasingly irritated by the rhetoric and spin surrounding secondary schools and, secondary public schools in particular. A quick review of headlines on Google (viewed on 30 June) from the so-called popular press in preparing this presentation  did nothing to lower my blood pressure and a lot to increase my cynicism about the motives behind the current commentary on education – especially public education-in this country.


Let me share some of the common and recurring myths about secondary schools:

 - The best placed people to determine curriculum in this country are men who have not been in a classroom in a  school for up to 40 years

 - The decline in Australia’s school education can be traced back to the 1970s when large numbers of women entered teaching  or

 - The decline in Australian school education can be traced back to the university education of the Baby Boomers – the “Flower Power” generation.

 - The decline in PISA results can be linked to increased funding, especially for public schools.

 - Progressive education (that is, an education that goes beyond literacy and numeracy) is a major cause of the decline in Australian school education.

 - The commentators and, in some cases, major policy makers usually have a solution about what “we” (that is the rest of us) should do:

 - We should test undergraduates to make sure they are literate and numerate before they enter teaching.

 - We should import micro teaching approaches, direct instruction, school-evaluation tools and testing regimes – generally from publishers based in countries that perform even more poorly than we do on PISA tests.

 - We should create independent public schools and/or academies because they will address poor participation, engagement and attainment better than government school systems do now.

There is little or no research to support the efficacy of these solutions above any others.

Some Emerging Realities for Secondary Schools

To contrast with the rhetoric, let me share three of my perceptions – perceptions informed by evidence within and beyond the school.

1. School teachers and principals have never been more expert and Australia is a world leader in standards based professional development….

As the principal of a school with 80 teaching staff, 65 of whom (including 4 members of the executive staff) are in their first seven years of teaching, I have been well placed to observe the quality of new teacher graduates entering the classroom. The Australian Professional Standards for Teachers are demanding and require teachers to demonstrate deep knowledge and skills in understanding their students, translating curriculum, planning for learning against assessment, managing the classroom learning environment and contributing to the school and community. As university staffs know, the skills and discourse needed by students successfully completing university are increasingly complex and demand that students leaving secondary schools and their teachers have a deep expertise in the learning demands of each subject.

2. Not all school communities are the same….

In his address to the ACEL conference in 2014, John Hattie said that 65% of schools in Australia were among the best schools in the world. The ability of many parents to make a private economic  decision to choose a secondary school for their children masks that fact that 35% of schools meet the needs of communities where parents and, more critically students have little or no choice.

The elephant in the room in any conversation about transforming secondary school education is school funding – and, critically, needs based funding. I am not going to go into that debate today except to say that, when students are starting secondary school 3-5 years behind the average for Australia, some schools are doing some very heavy lifting to reach key academic benchmarks. The common target of reaching state or national averages is a statistical furphy and shows how little many people remember from school about the definition of “average”.   If, for example, large numbers of students in western Sydney improve their performance, the average for the whole state moves up…..schools cannot, nor should they, be competing on those measures. I will return to this soon.

3. Rapid economic and social change and disruption…

At the recent NSW Secondary Principals’ Conference, several of the speakers challenged principals to pay much closer attention to the rapid economic and social disruption occurring globally and locally. As the March report of the Brotherhood of St Laurence showed, youth unemployment in 2014 was highest among young people. It is at its highest in regional and remote communities, those communities that are also over represented in the numbers of students in the lowest ICSEA (Index of Community and School Educational Advantage) quartiles. The emerging economy is predicted to be one with few traditional positions and one where work that is repetitive will be replaced by machines or by outsourcing to countries with cheaper labour forces. When even the work of lawyers and accountants can be replaced by scanners and sophisticated software, what we have done in schools in the past will not be enough to create success for our students in the future.

Is it any wonder that academics and school systems across the OECD are reflecting on how to teach students to be creative, entrepreneurial and resilient when experts are describing the complete transformation of the way we live and work? We can no longer talk about preparing students for the 21st century –in 2015 it is already with us.

In her foreword to Educating Ruby – What our Children Really Need to Learn (Claxton & Lucas 2015), Professor Tanya Byron writes: As a clinical psychologist working in child and adolescent mental health I often meet children and young people who are struggling at school t such a degree that it has severely compromised their mental health and daily functioning.

She goes on to say: School should foster a love of learning and enquiry, a thirst to discover and uncover, a sense of fun and creativity, whether learning about the past or developing ideas for the future.

These words respond powerfully to a sense of disquiet held by many educators. Many of our schools have developed their reputations for delivering excellent external results based on the present, a present based in a very traditional past.

Lucas and Claxton (2015) have identified the broad dispositions students need at different ages and stages of schooling. By the end of Year 8, they think students need to be able to make real world enquiries and see their own possible selves. By the end of Year 10 they think students need sustained engagement with bodies of knowledge and research. By the end of schooling they think students should have dispositions to deep scholarship and extended making (vocational dispositions).

We now need to ask if our secondary students have this level of mastery at these stages. Certainly, at Rooty Hill HS, up to 60% of our students start high school 3-5 years behind their peers. It is higher in many other schools.

Many of our secondary principals are now asking what they need to do to “future proof” learners and learning. It is possible that turning a school community around on current measures might be as useful in the long term as improving the pony express in the face of the arrival of the telegraph.


School Culture and Context

Having said that, it is now important to turn to the questions posed for this presentation and how Rooty Hill HS has responded to those questions.

So, when you think of comprehensive government schools in western Sydney, what do you think? Do you imagine low expectations, disengagement and underachievement?

There is evidence for this view. There are communities in western Sydney where there is an acceptance of low achievement from students, teachers, schools and sadly – the community itself.

You will have similar perceptions of some secondary schools and communities in Tasmania and across Australia and many parents will be just a little pleased when their children do not have to go there. And there will be people who “have made it” who will apologise to their adult peers when they talk about the school they attended when they were at school. These dinner party conversations tell just as much about the critical issues for the future of secondary school education as any reports published in recent years. 

There is nothing worse for principals and teachers than working as hard as or harder than other colleagues to create improvement for students and not being recognised for improvement and success on the snapshot measures determined by governments and systems.Broadly, these measures fall into three groups: attendance measures, retention measures and attainment measures. They are very useful as a triangulating and comparative tool for schools but they are not enough.

I would argue that schools hold significant reservoirs of data and information and that schools who wish to change the learning trajectory for students will use a wide range of sources for their information. They will measure changes over time to see the patterns that emerge. They will strongly prosecute the argument that the school most like our school is our school last year and our school next year. These schools focus on patterns, progress and improvement measures.

They develop cultures that are disposed to innovation (often as a result of a crisis or the failure of decontextualized, system wide approaches) and their leaders bring others on the journey. They keep their schools focused on the future and on the opportunities presented to try new strategies aligned with the culture of the school.


School Planning

At the centre of our work to create a culture of success at Rooty Hill High School is a new collaborative approach to school planning, school evaluation and the initiation and implementation by the school of strategies and projects that will create the change we want.

The NSW Department of Education introduced a new school planning model in August 2012 based on the work of Simon Sinek. Starting with redefining the purposes of the school, based on a statement of the school’s strengths, each government school in NSW has identified 3 strategic directions on which to focus their work, learning, teaching and resources. The three directions at Rooty Hill HS are:

 - Capability Driven Curriculum: We will deliver our overall purpose through the development and implementation of high quality creative, digital, capability driven curriculum, teaching and learning, and assessment designed to increase the learning trajectory of each student.

 - Personalised Learning: We will deliver our overall purpose through the development and implementation of high quality universal, targeted and intensive personalised learning programs that give each student the opportunity to do his or her best in making a successful transition to 21st life and work.

 - Leading for Innovation: We will deliver our overall purpose through a values driven, research based culture with a disposition to leading for creativity, improvement and innovation in our planning, partnerships and professional practice.


We know our purpose and it is clearly articulated in the school plan. It is underpinned by our articulated school values and an over-arching set of beliefs. We believe we have a moral contract with our parents and students to give every student the opportunity to do his or her best. As teachers we do not teach the students we want to have; we teach the students we have to be the ones we want to have. We spend a lot of time communicating with parents who have made the choice to send their children to the school to create the confidence in them that they have made the right choice. This is reinforced by the use of social media to engage a new generation of parents who are increasingly connecting to us in new ways.

Details of the Rooty Hill HS school plan and its associated projects are available on the school’s website at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

It is important to note that the document is just a record – the power of the shift this has made to our culture is in the collaborative and creative process of planning, tracking, monitoring and reporting on progress towards the new practices and products we want to have in place. It is in watching the role of executive staff shift from compliance roles to leading and managing key change projects. It is in the increasing skills of the teaching staff to undertake action research projects, manage student data and apply their learning to the creation of new change platforms for learning.

One of the most powerful learnings for the school’s teachers and administrative staff in the last three years has been in identifying, collecting, analysing and using data to inform decision making in classrooms, programs, projects and the milestone tracking required for the school plan. When we established the projects and milestones for each strategic direction at Rooty Hill HS we set up measures that would capture how much we have done (inputs including professional learning), how well we have done it (effectiveness) and what impact/difference it has made in terms of student achievement and growth.

As a result we have identified the following key performance measures for the school, measures on which we have agreed to track our progress in the next 3-5years. There are concessions to the need to triangulate with external data and there is also recognition of the context of our school, with its strong vocational education programs and the Melbourne Declaration.

1. Average growth and value added data (learning trajectories) to within 1 mark of state average; 

2. 40% of all students achieving Band 4+ in external tests and an average GPA of 3.5 on internal academic reports.

3. 80% students achieving benchmark standards in ACARA/BOS capabilities

4. 40% of students seeking university entry and 90% planning tertiary education after leaving school.

5. All students demonstrate progress in their digital portfolios towards being successful learners, confident and creative individuals and active and informed citizens.

6. The school is recognised as a major developer of innovative intellectual, organisational, social, professional, leadership and educational capital.


Change Platforms, Strategies, Processes and Projects

 I am going to assume that many of you are already familiar with the work done by Zanini and Hamel (2014) for McKinsey & Company and I would just comment (as an aside) that one of the reasons I am an avid Twitter fan (@chriscawsey) is the amount of research and credible reporting that comes to me through teachers, academics and research organisations.


I have shared the key messages from the work of Zanini and Hamel with our school community and, as a result we have had deep discussions about why many of the “prescribed and pre-designed programmatic solutions” traditionally imposed on schools in the 20th century did not work. I would recommend reading the full article (see link in footnote). The following five recommendations have informed our work:

1. Encourage individuals to tackle significant organisational challenges that might be considered normally beyond their sphere of influence and/or at the limits of their zone of proximal development.

2. Encourage personal responsibility in individuals for initiating the change they want and give them tools and resources to “spur” creative thinking and creativity.

3. Foster honest and forthright discussion of root causes and, in the process develop a shared view of the “thorniest” barriers.

4. Elicit many possible solutions or options rather than jumping quickly to a single approach. – diverge before converging.

5. Focus on generating a portfolio of experiments that can be “conducted locally” to help prove or disprove the general solution rather than going for a grand design.


We now try to ensure we focus on school wide platforms and platform generation to underpin our programs and projects. We seek alignment across the school at a policy and platform level; projects and programs are then targeted within the platforms (see Figure below)


Let me share three highly successful processes now used by the school in this work:


1. Lead faculties and project leaders – when the school has a major project to do, such as the work done with the Improving Literacy and Numeracy National Partnership in 2013-14 we now identify “lead faculties, teams of teachers who will conduct small scale trials and evaluations of platforms and tools we think will be effective. Where they are effective, they are adopted across the school. The school also creates “positions” within faculties for teachers who are peer leaders on projects within the school plan. The following comment was made in the final report comments: ILNNP was a model of this new approach –Network of willing but initially inexperienced NP leaders, lead faculty, focus on experimenting, successful faculties worked together to solve subject based problems, consultants to guide from the side, use of social technologies, creation of agreed platforms for reading, writing, thinking, creativity supported by deep programming owned by teachers.

2. Professional learning teams (PLT) – At Rooty Hill HS all teachers (including the principals and senior executive staff) belong to a professional learning team and undertake action research into a targeted area identified in the school plan. Members of each team design and conduct action research that informs the products produced by the PLT during or at the end of the year and then adopted by the whole school.

3. Capability driven curriculum – In NSW the curriculum has traditionally been driven by strong content frameworks and there has been a tension in secondary schools between traditional “content based” approaches to each subject and the capabilities that are assessed in NAPLAN and in other external assessments including ESSA (Essential Science Skills Assessment in Years 8 and 10) and the Higher School Certificate. This will be extended in 2016 when PISA assesses 15 year olds for skills in creativity and problem solving. Working with Professor Bill Lucas (who is based at Winchester University) and three in-house consultants the school has reframed its subject based programming and lesson design to “teach through the ACARA capabilities” rather than teach them explicitly and separately from each subject. There has been a shift in the rate of learning, the learning trajectories and the overall performance of students on the ACARA benchmarks and, from Term 3 2015, students in Years 7 and 8 will be able to demonstrate their performance on the capability benchmarks (in addition to traditional academic reports) with their new e-portfolios.




As well as measuring our progress on key performance measures (see above), the school is also measuring its progress towards the products and practices identified in the school plan. The digital portfolio for students is one example of a product for which the school has planned. A second, and significant product has been the publication of key instructional and relational platforms, including the publication and use of the Creativity Wheel – a platform (tool) now being used in each subject to deconstruct and reconstruct learning against the key dimensions of creativity identified by research and trialled by a professional learning team in 2014 (See Figure below).




A Culture of Success

In times of great transitions, schools and school leaders have always responded by creating the best opportunities and systems they can. In preparing this presentation I took time to consider the elements of the shift towards success that Rooty Hill HS is making. It is important to recognise that this is not an “either or choice”; rather the school moves along the continuum depending on where we are sitting in the planning, implementing and reviewing cycle.




To conclude, I would like to note that success itself does not last. By contrast, a culture that believes it can be successful and works towards that constantly develops some characteristics, values and purposes that can be sustained. I have been privileged to be a principal in the same school for 17 years and to have conducted a number of “garage sales” where we decided what to keep, what to throw out, what to put in a box for later and what to try to get to keep us focused on doing our best for students and their families. If you have not had an organisational “garage sale” for some time, I would highly recommend it.


If I were going into a new position as principal in a secondary school, I would want to keep a strong focus on the strengths, values and purposes of the school that are important to the students, teachers, the community and the future.


I would want to measure the purposes, processes, products and practices that were valued by the school community for the future of their students.


I would want the clean-up team to throw out “stuff” that does not work, is not evidence-informed and that damages the future learning culture of the school.


I would want to work collaboratively to find ways to build the capacity, capabilities and dispositions of staff, students and the community to do the work we have to do in new ways.


I would want to the team to keep its focus on our critical work to create sustainable cultures of success and graduate highly educated 18 year olds who are ready to live their life (not yours or mine), to undertake new types of work and to embrace further learning.