Give schools an inch and they will give us back a mile | Thought Starters

Principal for a day: a policy wonk’s day out at Kensington Community High School

If you’re like me and probably many other followers of Australian politics and policy-making, putting together the words ‘policy’ and ‘schools’ conjures up an immediate picture of political fireworks and impassioned community debate.

Students, campaigners, Ministers, Prime Ministers, principals, parents, education experts and interest groups across Australia have devoted huge amounts of time and energy in recent years tussling over significant conundrums relating to schools policy, especially secondary schools. Giving a Gonski. Giving all of the Gonskis for all of the years. MySchool. NAPLAN. PISA. You name it (or acronym it), Australia’s been agonising over it.


These issues capture the hearts and minds of people because they are utterly important. Clearly, our country is facing critical and unresolved challenges about ensuring access to quality education at all levels. In Victoria, the percentage of public school students meeting the minimum literacy and numeracy standards is not markedly improving over time. Around 10,000 Victorian students drop out or disengage with school every year. Government schools still carry most of the challenge of entrenched inequality and disadvantage. Across Australia, more than 80% of low socio-economic and Indigenous students are enrolled in public schools.

In policy circles we talk about ‘wicked problems’; problems that are so complex, contextual, incomplete, contradictory, multifaceted, subjective and systemic that they are resistant to a solution. Schools policy is arguably in its own special category of ‘super-wickedness’. It is caught up in a particularly ferocious and complicated policy arena where the notoriously thorny giants of State and Federal relations, budgets balancing, early education quality reforms, university fees, TAFE cuts, vocational education regulation, public service outsourcing, teacher shortages, workforce wage campaigns and labour market transformation endlessly grapple for priority on a platform of shifting sand.

As a policy professional and former lawyer working mainly outside of education policy (with no kids of school age) I’ve kept up with the commentary and formed my views from afar. Reading and thinking about schools policy can become an academic or ideological exercise, drawing on personal convictions or individual experience. But without exposure or immersion in the education system it’s all too easy to overlook the human face and bigger social picture of this complex policy area.

Recently I had a unique opportunity to put some flesh on the bones of my knowledge and experience of about Victoria’s secondary schools. I took part in a project called ‘Principal for a Day’ in which I shadowed the leader of a secondary school in Melbourne.

The day before I visited the school, I did what I could to prepare. I looked on MySchool, briefly pondered attendance rates and demographic breakdowns, squinted at inscrutable literacy and numeracy outcomes, before giving up on the graphs on the screen and wondering what I’d really get out of that if I were a parent looking for a school for my child.


Speaking the next day with my host Gary Power, the Principal of Kensington Community High School (KCHS) in Flemington, I asked how the school attracts new enrolments. His answer – ‘the kids tell other kids’. It’s hard to imagine a stronger or more meaningful endorsement of a school’s contribution than that.

This is especially true in light of the highly vulnerable cohort of young people this particular school educates and supports. KCHS educates no less than 7 of the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services’ top 20 at-risk young people.

KCHS is an alternative educational setting for secondary aged students who are at risk of not completing secondary education due to un-met personal, interpersonal and learning needs. The school’s long-time social worker told me that 85% of their students have a trauma history of some form and at least 65% have ongoing links or care arrangements with social supports other than their families. Many of the students are living in out-of-home-care. Some students have intellectual or learning disability or mental health concerns.

It is a small school with a maximum capacity for around 100 ongoing students. Its teaching and administration rooms are part of the nineteenth century Cattle Saleyards, so the school is created within and around old colonial stone buildings and weathered wooden livestock pens, while the basketball court has been reclaimed from the cobblestones. On the cool wet day of my visit the whole area was warmed by enticing smells from the centrally-placed school kitchen, where a local lady is employed to cook breakfast and hot lunch for the students gathered in the courtyard.

What I saw on my visit was a school making use of every last drop of funding and goodwill that comes its way and reinvesting that in the education, hopes and wellbeing of its students. This school, like so many others, goes the extra mile on every front; applying for subsidised for Myki cards for students attending from the other side of Melbourne; building partnerships with key services for specialised support for students or, where it is so often equally needed, for their struggling parents; arranging vocational training or experience with local businesses (childcare centres, hardware shops, or automotive centres) or Local Learning and Employment Networks (LLENs); hunting for ad hoc grants for parent seminars, scholarships for a student’s laptop or funds for curriculum ‘coaching’ for the energetic teaching staff.

This innovation and persistence couldn’t be better-placed, given the structural crises gripping young people in Western Melbourne. The nearby suburbs have drastic statistics. Youth unemployment in Braybrook is 30% and in Maidstone, it’s 20%. For these teenagers coping with a seriously disadvantaged or traumatic start to life, these secondary years can be make or break. Some of the young people on the school’s books seem to be going alright; others stay ‘on the books’ until they are 17 but never make it back to class. The school social workers I spoke to said they wished they could keep track of what happened after the students graduate or leave. As a policy observer, this was another reminder that resources for understanding bigger picture trends and outcomes are key for shaping effective interventions in the short term.


For a person who spends a lot of time dropping ‘the social safety net’ into conversations, my visit to KCHS helped me understand just how crucial schools are as an entry point for holding young lives together, slowly working at the knots and providing a strong base for young adults to climb from.

Gary Power and the teachers build relationships with students and, where necessary, their immediate families. The two school social workers make home visits if individual attendance is failing; schedule health or clinical appointments at school if parents aren’t managing to keep appointments; and meet with case managers and extended care teams from community services as part of bespoke, integrated care wrapped-around each of the students who need it. Importantly, the students themselves have the agency of deciding if and how to work with the supports around them.

In following the debate over recent years, I’ve heard the claim made that NAPLAN and MySchool provide a narrow vision of what constitutes educational excellence and achievement. Only a few weeks ago the Victorian Government announced that parents’ education levels and students’ NAPLAN results will determine how much money Victorian schools receive under an overhaul of Gonski-derived education funding.


I’m convinced there’s a serious back-end value to policy designers and implementers accessing standardised assessment and outcomes tools. These have their place. But it would be unfortunate if these frameworks came to dictate too much. Having been to KCHS, I saw a highly textured and vibrant picture of a school, networked intricately into the surrounding social environment, working to educate students while building social value and impact in wider sense.  It made me reflect that each school’s value is qualitative, contextual and nuanced, accumulating uniquely on the basis of the people it employs, the public interest values it pursues and the characteristics and choices of the young people it educates and supports. I’m not convinced that such quality can possibly be captured on a MySchool screen. We should all give all the Gonskis, and so much more.

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Kelly Farrow is Policy Director at the Centre for Policy Development. She is grateful to Gary Power and the teaching, administration and caring staff and students at Kensington Community High School who were welcoming, proud and informative about their school. She absolutely recommends ‘Principal for a Day’ to anyone interested in next year’s program.

‘Principal for a Day’ is supported by the Victorian Department of Education and Training and others. It aims to bring business and community leaders together with school leaders to increase understanding of schools and build lasting relationships and partnerships between sectors. Find out more here