Every Student Podcast: Murray Kitteringham
Mark Scott sits down with Murray Kitteringham from Sir Joseph Banks High to ask why the most innovative schools are “uncomfortable but willing”.
Mark Scott sits down with Murray Kitteringham from Sir Joseph Banks High to ask why the most innovative schools are “uncomfortable but willing”.
Hi, I’m Mark Scott, Secretary of the NSW Department of Education. Welcome to Every Student, the podcast where I get to introduce you to some of our great leaders in education. Sir Joseph Banks High School in Revesby is a turnaround school with a strong commitment to personalised learning and building relationships with the local community and local primary schools. In the space of four years, the school has doubled its Year 7 enrolments and student growth data is amongst the highest in the state and I am talking today with the principal of Sir Joseph Banks High School, Murray Kitteringham. Murray, welcome to the Every Student Podcast.
Thanks very much, Mark.
Tell us, if we go to Joseph Banks and your school there what are we going to find?
You will find a very diverse student population, 92% non-English speaking backgrounds. We have got the patchwork of the world at our school. Lots of different cultural backgrounds, 29 different language groups so a very multicultural community. About 640 kids at the moment, which has grown in the last couple of years from 540 up to the 640 which is good.
You have been there for about four years.
This is my fourth.
Where were you before that?
I was at Chifley College which is Bidwell Campus out in the Mount Druitt area.
Tell us about the recruitment process how did you get the job at Joseph Banks?
It is a merit selection process. By application when the advertisement came up I found it and thought this looks like it might be a place that I could have some impact.
One of the interesting things I think about leadership roles is what you think it is going to be like and what it is like when you actually land, so talk about the gap between what you thought it might be like and then how you really realised it was after your first period of time on the ground.
To be honest with you the Chifley College experience was amazing and what I learnt there as a professional, to deal with low SES complexity, specifically the needy kids was quite significant. I felt that it really prepared me extremely well. But landing there I guess the difference was the multicultural community and trying to learn and understand the different cultural perspectives and the complexity that brings to the table. The Mount Druitt experience is not so multicultural. The kids’ issues are very much the same; kids having a hard time with their learning, there’s lots of different reasons for it but one thing that is the same is that the kids are kids no matter where they are.
When you land in a complex environment there is lots of stuff that you can work on, there is your leadership team, there’s the teaching and learning strategies that have been utilised, there is the wellbeing of the kids, there is the community engagement – you can’t do it all at once, how do you work out where to start and which levers to pull first?
It takes a little while because your go-to people are always different in every school. I had a pretty strong philosophy – Mark Bernard was the principal out at Bidwell Campus – and the philosophy is really quite simple, which is ‘happy kids learn’. If kids are well adjusted and you are addressing their wellbeing levels then they are able to access the curriculum. So when I went in there it was quite simple; get the relational pedagogy right and then you are able to access the instructional pedagogy but obviously, there was a lot of mapping that had to take place.
What do you mean by mapping?
Knowing where every child is at. I knew going into the school – I have worked in a number of low SES communities and I know that the issues are very much the same. Fairfield area, before Mount Druitt, at Fairvale High School and low SES communities certainly have similarities with their literacy and numeracy complexity and usually within the same sorts of aspects because of what they have missed out on in primary school. I had a pretty good idea of where to start. If we are looking at literacy and numeracy and that is what the priority is, let’s map where the kids are at and use (at the time) the literacy and numeracy continuum to do so. Then from that, it will tell us exactly what we need to do and what we need to focus on, so that was a good place to start.
You went about and you almost did an audit, in a sense, of where all your students are up to in literacy and numeracy, you map them against them the continuum which was being used at the time. Data wall; how did you capture that so everyone could see it?
The literacy continuum is huge and I knew from my previous schools to focus on reading, writing and comprehension – they were the core areas where we would be struggling – but we did an analysis to make sure that it did ring true for our setting and it was the same. It makes sense that if kids are struggling with reading they will have a problem with their comprehension and if they have got a problem with those two areas their writing is certainly going to be falling behind so that is where we started. We actually did a map across the school to look at what are we doing in Stage 4 and what are we doing to address Stage 5 and 6 with their literacy and numeracy and let’s have a look at where we are doubling up and also where we are falling short and what strategies are in place to make sure that nobody falls behind. The data that you get from that is very clear.
One of the interesting things I think about in coming into a challenging environment you didn’t arrive with a whole new staff nearly all of them had been there well before you. You arrived as the young P-plated principal, first gig, full of ideas. I can almost guarantee that they had been working pretty hard and they had been giving it all so you arrive with new ideas – how do you get your staff on board to engage with you and to agree that they are going to follow you and the strategy that you are working out to bring about a transformation at the school.
You are spot on with that because I am the new kid on the block and who am I to tell people that have been there for a long time what to do? Part of the strategy and it is not so much a strategy but what you need to do is know your staff and know what is important to them and find out what they are struggling with and what they are enjoying and what they like about the place and also find out what the difficulties are so they’re conversations that happen. I don’t sit in my office I spend my whole day around the school and having those hundred face-to-face conversations.
I see you have got a watch on that can count your steps, so you clock up a few steps around the school?
Yes a regular day between 8,000 and 12,000 and certainly get the steps up much to the front office’s disgust that they can’t find me in my office as easily but my mobile phone is in my pocket. That is part of it but it is also being authentic and meaning what you say and saying what you mean, and it is about the kids. It has never been about my personal agenda, it is not about this is my philosophy and you will listen. If we were to go over to the relational pedagogy, I was actually quite strategic in that. I am Choice Theory trained (William Glasser’s Choice Theory) and that is a philosophy of positive psychology and that was something that I was trained in at Chifley Bidwell. I knew that if it was the pathway that I wanted to go down to get everyone on the same page that I would need to strategically train people in what it was about. I sent the senior exec along to do the basic intensive training and when they came back it was “this is the pathway that I would like to move in, what do you think?” And they said, “it is the best professional learning they’ve done for a very long time and they could see where I was coming from.” It specifically talks about not being able to control other people, it is a psychology of intrinsic or internal motivation and not powering over people. What we know about children in low SES schools, every school, is if you back them in the corner and you are powering over them and you go harder, that they literally can come out swinging sometimes. So how do we work with people so that we do – before you came out with ‘know, value and care for every child’ – this is actually what that psychology model is about and how to have those structured conversations with people so that they feel that they have come up with the solutions to their own dilemmas.
Can you think back on moments where some staff members who perhaps you thought may have been a bit sceptical and sitting there with their arms folded, where they came around?
Absolutely. Once the senior exec came, we started sending the head teachers along and of course there are people that don’t really know or understand it but once you experience something that you know is worthwhile and you believe that it has got a positive outcome, I think it is hard not to have faith in the process.
When you say send them off, was this to positive psych work?
Yes. Choice Theory basic intensive training. Rob Stones and Judy Hatswell still run that and they also run the Art of Leadership course for the PPA, so they are very much into training with high school teachers and leaders.
One of the things I think it has been a hallmark of your work has been connecting the family and school and it is a challenge in low SES communities in a sense, and some parents and family members won’t feel comfortable in a school environment, may not have been happy in a school environment themselves, but the research indicates that partnership is absolutely vital. So how did you go about getting that happening?
Literally one strategy at a time. When we went to the P&C – it is hard, many high schools struggle with P&C committees and groups and I must say our school was no different. There had been a lot of work done before I got there and the parent groups would be quite transient that would turn up but we had a P&C committee of between three and five people. What I wanted to put on the table was I don’t want people coming into our P&C group and feeling like they have got to leave with a box of chocolates and they’ve got to raise funds for our school. So what I did was flip it to this: P&C is about creating life long memories for our children and what I would like for this group to do is to work on events that brings the community together. And in the short term, it was a drip feed, slow on the uptake but in the last twelve months we have had between 15 and 20 parents and for our community that is huge at a regular P&C but through those parents, the conversations that are happening with the broader community have been really significant. There was another far more successful strategy than that and it was to do with working with the primary partner groups, working with the teachers and the school leaders. There are partner primary schools that we work with, we have eleven different primary schools that feed into our school, we have got five direct feeder schools and before I got there Mel Check one of our deputy principals – our numbers in Year 7 dropped to 63 the year before I started, so we had a real drop in numbers so it was decided then by Steve Waser and Brad Mitchell who were the two principals before me to work more closely with the primary schools, so those partnerships have been fundamental in what has happened at our school.
Let's talk about that transition and I know there are some – and Maurie Mulheron, the head of the Teachers Federation, says this to me when we talk – that public education NSW does not take as much advantage of the opportunities of transition as we should. And two things; one is that it is fairly superficial and second thing we don’t recognise the great things that kids in Year 6 do – they are leaders and running assemblies and they’re lead role in the school play and instruments in the orchestra and they are just out there and so full of life. They have six weeks over summer and we make them little kids again at the bottom of the pecking order. So talk specifically how transition at Sir Joseph Banks is not a superficial ‘get to know you’ but how early you’re starting that transition process and the kinds of things you’re doing.
I guess what you are talking about initially it’s not really an orientation – where people come and “there’s the canteen, there’s the buildings and toilets” and what not and I think that is the superficial stuff that all high schools do. But the transition to me means a real curriculum connection between schools, between the primary school and the high school. It means that we are talking the same language with the primary schools and the high schools. My wife is a primary school teacher and we have worked together – not at my current setting but we have worked together in a number of high schools over the years – and the value that primary school teachers add to a high school setting is significant because you have still got low literacy levels and you have still got a lot of issues with kids that are not connecting to that high school way of learning. Specifically what we have done is we have gone to our primary schools, we have had an open conversation with them and developed what has now become a community of schools partly on the back of the Communication and Engagement team coming in and working with us on our perception in the broader community and the sorts of things that we needed to focus on. We actually worked with Derek Schwarz in the Community Engagement team to know what we didn’t know and that feedback – it took a little while for them to go and do the research but they sat down with focus groups in every one of our feeder primary schools and actually worked with them to tell us exactly what they wanted. So when we met up with the primary schools we really understood what the parents wanted and we were catering to that need. And part of that is that kids lose interest when they come into high school. Their relationships with their peers are fundamental for their learning success, if they are not happy and comfortable and safe then they are not as open to learning. So over the years, there has been a lot of opportunity for schools to do things but we have started those relationships as early as Kindergarten. One of our feeder schools is K to 2.
We talked earlier about you referenced the line in our strategic plan, ‘that every student in a government school is known, valued and cared for’ and we want that to be a hallmark of NSW Education. It’s easier in primary schools because you have a classroom teacher. You look at that connection and your understanding about what happens in primary schools have you looked at the structure of Year 7 and Year 8? I sometimes wonder whether in fact we really mine all the lessons from the effectiveness of our primary schools in the way we structure and set up Year 7 and 8 and create more supporting infrastructure for students when they arrive at the bigger school.
There’s certainly different models that I have tried over the years and one of those is to try and have less teachers teaching them which can have success but the problem with that is growing it and bringing new people into it every year.
How have your staff felt about that when they have had to teach across a couple of subjects in order for that to work?
Uncomfortable but willing. That is one of the amazing things about teachers.
That is a motto for a great staffroom, isn’t it? “Uncomfortable but willing.”
I think every teacher goes out of their way for the kids because it is all about the kids. When we are putting new ideas out there and it needs to be supported not only with strong research and a philosophy that supports that research but some really strong ideas that connect with the teachers so that they can see value in what you are doing. Rather than it just being a flash in the pan idea, there’s some continuity – going from this and then we are going to do that and then following that this is what we are going to do after that – so with our Year 7 students every single student is tested. We get the information from the primary schools that every high school I know works with their primary schools to collect who their friendship groups are, what they’re good at and all that sort of information that can’t be necessarily tested but it is important and who they are not friends with. We structure our classes very strategically so that when they start we have got every piece of information that we can to support their success. They also do testing, formal literacy and numeracy testing, so that we can plot them on the continuum. So the progressions are of course– Best Start this year coming through was really helpful in that and I know that the team were really happy with the outcome of that and the data coming when you need it rather than a long way down the track. It certainly aligns with the other information that we have so we are putting the classes together very strategically and they are a Year 7 and Year 8 class so the idea being that they are not changing again at the end of Year 7.
There is some continuity across that.
With the teachers.
Just a bit of the data that you are seeing now you cited the number earlier of the Year 7 when you started what enrolment growth are you seeing and what improvement are you seeing in the learning outcomes as measured by NAPLAN or other metrics that you look at to plot improvement over time.
This year Year 7 enrolments have doubled, up to 128 students which we are very happy about. NAPLAN data is helpful to validate our local data because we plot them all on the continuums and we track that data. We do use John Hattie’s Effect Size Algorithm to calculate student success. The growth that we are seeing in the students is exceptional. We have got a Power Up program with literacy and Make it Count numeracy program that is happening to support the students to be able to access Stage 4 outcomes so when we did the mapping what we found was that a lot of the kids were Stage 2, Stage 3 and some of the kids were Stage 4 entering high school but not all and attacking the right areas and addressing the right areas in a really highly strategic way was really important.
One of the interesting things about Hattie’s line about a year’s growth for a year in schooling it can almost assume that every child is at the same place but if you have got a young person who is at Stage 2 literacy skills entering Stage 4 you have got to be doing more than a year’s progress for those kids to really help them catch up and achieve the levels that they need to be achieving.
I spoke to you about this at another event and what we have done is something that is a little outside the box. If you’ve got a class where the kids are not operating at age and stage appropriate outcomes then what we have made the strategic decision to do was to meet them at their area of need plus one so if they are operating at Stage 2 with particular areas then follow the continuum because you are not going to be able to teach anything in Stage 4 until they have picked up the aspects that they need to connect with in Stage 3. So we are focused on the skills and by doing that the kids’ growth back up to age and stage appropriate is far quicker than if you plug away ‘at come on this is what I need to teach you’ and content, content, content – which doesn’t work. We have gone with numeracy into games based learning and interactive learning with the students we don’t have textbooks for numeracy activities and mathematics they use them as a resource but certainly not “everyone turn to this page, this activity”. But what is happening in the classroom is very much based upon what students do so the differentiation that the teachers can put into place at the coal face is really clear. We have got an instructional leader that we have employed with literacy and numeracy, using the equity funding and that is money well spent, it really is.
What have been your other spending priorities with the Gonski funding you have got?
The model that we have operated on is supporting student wellbeing – happy kids learn. We have got a lot of staff that are employed specifically around our third strategic direction which is connecting students with their school and community so we have got staff that are employed to head up a learning and support team, wellbeing team and we have also got specific instructional leaders in literacy and numeracy. We have also got a transition coordinator and that is part of the reason why every single child for the last four years who wanted to go to university and is on an ATAR pattern of studies has been successful, four years in a row.
You have really developed individual plans and strategies for all those students?
That is right and our transition is from Kindergarten with the Community of Schools through we start our primary partners Year 3, 4, 5 and 6. The principals in the primary schools tell us what they want. The programs are not just targeted at students but also the teachers – we do connected professional learning between the high school and the primary school together. Then the transition for Year 10, 11 and 12 exiting begins very much in Year 9 where we start to have a look at what the kids want to aspire to and using the transition pathways. We have got a student support officer, who is a youth worker, employed in the school. That not only helps us with kids that are having difficulties with their relationships, with their peers and with themselves and connecting with self, but she also connects disengaged students to the community. Careers advisor helping with work experience, work placement and our transition coordinator is really focused on the ATAR pattern students.
Some close partnerships with universities as well: UTS, Western Sydney and the University of Sydney.
Yes absolutely that is fundamental and that is the direction a lot of our kids want to go in. More than half of our kids want to go to university. Those pathways start through ABCN [Australian Business and Community Network] and the various university programs; the PATHE program for Pacific Islander students, AIME program for our Aboriginal students. But making sure that the kids have that opportunity to aspire to something that they feel is out of their reach. We have a lot of programs where we are working with the universities at various stages between Year 9 through to Year 12 and they get to go to the universities and have a look at what is happening there and make those connections.
One of the things that has been a little bit unusual about your school in the last year or so is the full glare of public attention that has fallen on it. I know Jenny Brockie, and I ran into her one night, and she said that she was off to your school that week and she had heard about your school and she took her crew down there and SBS did an hour on your school and put really it in the spotlight. It must have been a great vote of confidence in the work to get that kind of attention but what happened on the other side of that? A lot of people beat a path to your door now?
It’s absolutely been the outcome of that. It’s almost like a lot of the success that we have had at the local level with our primary schools have been because of the work we have done at the local level grassroots work with our primary partners, the work that we do day-to-day with the universities. When Jenny Brockie wanted to do the show on our school I must say that I felt a little intimidated because I love SBS. The things that they cover on that show are really broad and they ring really true with a lot of the broader community. The attention that we have got from the education community has been quite astounding. And the support that we have got; we’ve had a philanthropist give us money to support study programs, $10,000 from one person that said “I really love the work that is going on there, how can I support student learning better?” and we said “we want to run this homework club and here is the idea,” and I pitched that idea and he was happy to fund that. So there has been a lot of outcomes that have come from that but interesting with the success that we have had at the local level, with our increased student numbers, have had little to do with the show and more to do with the hard work that is happening on the ground.
You have had an energetic four years, big challenges, some really encouraging results and feedback to this point. As you look ahead four years or so what is next on the slate for you at that school?
One of the things that we are aspiring to in the school plan is to make sure that every single child has one foot into their future. That is the end game for us. We have a very broad student group; we have got a support unit with 70 students that are intellectually mild and moderate, we have also got lots of kids that are operating at a lower literacy and numeracy level all the way through to high achieving students. And every student wanting to go to university does. What we really want to achieve is that every student knows and has a connection with where they are going and what they want to do and making sure that they get there. Being age and stage appropriate with their literacy and numeracy is another core priority for us because the kids are not. Kids are coming from refugee backgrounds, non-English speaking backgrounds really struggle to get the basics right so that they can access that curriculum. Our core priorities are making sure that the kids are connected with their learning and that they are known, valued and cared for and that they feel confident and happy within themselves. I’m a parent as many of us are and the one thing that every parent wants for their child is for them to be happy and there is a lot of anxiety that happens in high school about ‘what is going to happen?’ But we do know that the work that we have been doing has had a huge impact in the local community, that the confidence in the community is there with the direction that we are taking as a school and the connections with our primary schools are stronger than ever. In fact next term we are having our first community of schools’ joint school development day so the six of us are meeting together at Canterbury Bankstown Leagues Club and the six schools are going to be working on a project to do with visible thinking which is really exciting.
Murray thanks for all you are doing for the students at Sir Joseph Banks and thanks that every student there is known, valued and cared for. Thanks for the way you have taken on the great challenge and we will look, very closely and with great interest, at your future success at Sir Joseph Banks. Thanks for joining us today.
Thanks, Mark, excellent.
Thank you for listening to this episode of every student. Never miss an episode by subscribing on your podcast platform of choice or by heading to our website at education.nsw.gov.au/every-student-podcast or if you know someone who is a remarkable innovative educator who we could all learn from you can get in touch with us via Twitter at NSW Education on Facebook or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks again and I will catch you next time.