Drilling deeper into the core disciplines

While some schools are adding multiple elective subjects, co-curricular activities and overseas trips to their curriculum, St Catherine’s School is narrowing and deepening its focus to the fundamental disciplines of English, mathematics, science and the humanities.

“Schools often attempt to do too many things and some disciplines are not really covered in great depth,” says Robert Marshall, the Director of Teaching and Learning at St Catherine’s. “What can happen is that a school’s resources may be spread too thinly and it’s difficult to really excel at anything.”

Mr Marshall came to St Catherine’s at the end of last year, having worked at the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) and completing a Master’s in educational leadership. Since his arrival, he has been targeting a “less is more” philosophy.

According to an OECD study that evaluated school systems around the world, Australia’s standards of education have been declining since 2000, despite being one of the top-performing nations.
St Catherine’s is combatting this by prioritising what’s important. The school has increased the amount of time dedicated to those core subjects from years 7 to 10.

Mr Marshall says that there’s often a “big jump” between year 10 and VCE. “The academic program in year 10 in many schools doesn’t provide the necessary rigour and platform to launch into VCE,” he says. “We want to reduce the gap.”

St Catherine’s gives year 10 students the opportunity to study a semester of biology, chemistry, physics or psychology, which Mr Marshall equates to two years of science at any other school.
“It’s offering more choice to the girls. For example, if a student is far more interested in humanities or music or the arts, then they have an opportunity to explore that at greater depth.

“We are really trying to set up pathways for girls to follow their interests and passions.” While it might seem like the school is taking a “back to basics” approach in its core learning, St Catherine’s still boasts strong arts, music, sports, community service and wellbeing programs.

With around 80-90 girls in each year level, it’s easy for the school to monitor the development of students beyond assessments and test scores. St Catherine’s relies on teacher observations of how well students are engaging in discussion, answering questions, and staying on task. This year, they’ve also introduced “learning intentions” at the beginning of each class to make clear to students what they’re learning and why.

The school’s small size means that teachers are able to provide individual care and guidance when it’s most needed, especially when it comes to VCE subject selection. “The girls are very well known and I think that’s a distinct advantage for the school,” MrMarshall adds. “It is one of the happiest schools I’ve ever seen.” It’s early days, but Mr Marshall believes
that St Catherine’s efforts to sharpen its focus this year will deliver better results in year 12.

“It’s going to take a year or two for the data to come in, but in my discussions with Heads of Faculty and the Principal, I would expect that by the end of Term 1 next year, we’re going to have some very strong indications that we’re on the right track,” he says.

“Research supports the decisions we’re making. There is no substitute for a quality teacher in front of a class…If you have a great teacher, great learning will happen for every single student.”

Innovation in education - The Age

Published 12 August

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