Every Student Podcast: Paul McDermott
Primary School Principal of the Year Paul McDermott joins Mark Scott to discuss how Blue Haven Public became a ‘hot school’.
Primary School Principal of the Year Paul McDermott joins Mark Scott to discuss how Blue Haven Public became a ‘hot school’.
Hi, I'm Mark Scott, Secretary of the NSW Department of Education and welcome to Every Student, the podcast where I get to introduce you to some of our great leaders in education. In my time working in NSW Education I'm struck by the fact that every now and again you get a 'hot school'. You get a school that everybody is talking about and I think of the achievements at Woonona High School when Belinda Wall was principal there or a guest in our Every Student podcast, Murray Kitteringham and the work that he's done at Sir Joseph Banks High School. Well, at the moment, one of the schools that everybody is talking about is Blue Haven Public School and today I am in conversation with Paul McDermott. And he is the Principal at Blue Haven and it's one of our primary schools on the Central Coast of NSW. Blue Haven recently won the Primary School of the Year, Government category at the Australian Education Awards. And Paul himself won the Primary School Principal of the Year award. Welcome Paul, it has been a big year.
It has been Mark, thank you. We've never been called a hot school before, so that's a privilege, thank you.
Yes, tell me about how you got to Blue Haven, let's go into your background a bit because you are not one of the lifers in NSW Education, your background was in another state and in another system.
It was I went to university up in Queensland and the first job opportunity that I accepted was with Catholic education, I spent 20 years with Catholic education and learnt my craft with them and when I felt I had the skills I moved over to public education.
You traded up to NSW public schools.
Tell me, was that hard to do? I know I have spoken to people from non-Government schools who say it's a hard system to crack, was that your experience?
Incredibly hard yes incredibly hard to break through so I had a good track record as a principal in the Catholic system but it was still very much a challenge and very grateful once I got the opportunity at Barnsley Public School to start in public education and I haven't looked back since.
And tell us about what you attempted at Barnsley?
Barnsley is in the west of Newcastle and it was a fairly low socio-economic area as well, the school was underperforming. The staff were frustrated, it was pretty much a choose your own adventure approach to education. We use the analogy of an egg carton, where all the eggs were in the same box but no one was really working together or collaborating or interacting. The staff really wanted to have a look at the evidence as did I obviously. We really embedded a really strong evidence-based approach to teaching and learning, we adopted a signature pedagogy which was explicit instruction. We worked really hard together as a team and set a platform for our kids and we achieved some great results. By 2016 we were ranked amongst the 20 top-performing value-added schools in the state; which was a big turnaround for the school and one that we were all proud of.
I want to talk a little bit about explicit instruction and that is certainly the learning technique or teaching technique you've engaged at Blue Haven as well. Had you used that prior in your system and broadly speaking about explicit instruction, do you think there are some settings where it's particularly powerful?
The evidence would suggest in low socio-economic areas it has a huge impact, but I would argue that it works in all settings. All kids need that scaffolding and support along the learning journey. Recent research even around gifted and talented education says that we need to explicitly teach our gifted kids more as well. Look it's probably not the flavour of the month, it's not the trendy approach to teaching and learning, but it is backed by a very, very strong set of evidence and that's why we use it at Blue Haven and we're using it to great effect there as well.
Let's talk a bit about Blue Haven. You arrived in 2016, you did your recognisance of the environment there and what did you find?
It was a great school and I don't say any of what I say with any disrespect to the leaders that were there before me. There was a bit of an itinerant revolving door of relieving principals for some time, which all of those factors conspired against the school I guess in some ways. One of the first things I did was ask the staff what the vision for the school was and it wasn't something that anyone could articulate so I thought that was a problem to start with. People needed to know their why and why they were driving through the gates every morning to support the kids. Low staff morale; I think that was reflective of the fact that the community engagement was very low as well and there was quite a bit of animosity towards the school, the reputation of the school was very low. We had great kids - we still have great kids - but they didn't achieve great results and they didn't have a great belief in themselves, so our NAPLAN results reflected that we were well behind the eight-ball as well. We had some work to do, we had a lot of work to do.
If you're looking at your NAPLAN results I mean that is one of the things that has brought Blue Haven into focus. You went from being, in a sense, about the bottom 10% of NAPLAN results to really now being in the highest performing decile (top 10%). You've seen great improvement in evidence of the students over the time you've been at the school. Let's break down a little bit your approach, because it is not just 'focus on literacy and numeracy performance and NAPLAN preparation' is it. So what are the evidence-based practices that you're putting into place at Blue Haven?
So the pedagogy is one of our real strong points at the school, so we worked really hard on having that signature pedagogy, that evidence-base behind it as well. We have very high levels of collaboration amongst all of our staff; we pride ourselves on giving our staff a lot of time to work together. There is a really consistent language across our staff, everyone singing off the same hymn sheet. That was one thing that we worked really hard on was building that collective efficacy across the staff and that has been really hugely effective, so there is a great belief in our school in what we do and why we do it more importantly. We focused really heavily on the wellbeing side of things as well so there is a lot of wellbeing factors that were contributing to our poor results, including the poor behaviour that we were experiencing back in 2016. A really big focus on making sure that our kids felt known, valued and cared for and safe when they came to school. And ensuring that parents were supported at home as well. We wanted to get our parents through the gate; back in 2016, it was a sense that wagons were circled and we were keeping the parents out so we wanted to open the flood gates and have the parents in and have them understanding what we were doing in the classroom and why, but to educate them as to how they can support their kids at home.
There's so much in that, let's break that out and talk about that a bit. Let's talk about parental engagement. I think one of the challenges that we can have in some settings is that some parents can find school intimidating, often when they're invited into the school it is because the news is not great about their kid rather than positive things to share. And some of our parents have got to be realistic; their own school days might not have been that happy and it may not be a place that they reflect on as a successful environment for them. If parents are feeling alienated from a school setting, what are the practical things you've done to make the school more welcoming and to engage parents as partners in learning?
Exactly right, Mark. A lot of our parents had very negative experiences at school themselves so we try to break that barrier down. One of the really fun things that we do as a school is we're out at the front gate every single morning, I'm out there opening car doors every morning. We've got a teacher on duty at the front gate. A lot of our parents don't get to come into the school, so we meet them at the cars and open the doors and welcome the kids in. Have a quick chat if we need to and we've got silly suits that we wear once or twice a term as well just for a bit of fun for the school. So, we really do promote that we're a fun and engaging staff as well just to get the parents to build trust in what we do and who we are. We spend a lot of time communicating with our parents because we don't have a lot of engagement in the school - or we didn't have a lot of engagement in the school. We create vignettes that we put on our website so our parents can engage with different practices and processes we're putting in place so an example of that is we have student-led conferences that we have introduced this year. We did a vignette on that to explain to the parents how they work?
Like a little film or something?
Yeah, just a short YouTube clip and parents can access that. We put it on Facebook, we put it on the website and we're getting really high levels of engagement from our community through those sorts of things.
It's interesting actually, I think the tyranny always was school notes buried at the bottom of the bag unread. So, you have a pretty aggressive online and social media strategy to engage parents?
Yes absolutely. That's been really effective, parents are saying that they really like those; they prefer those as a way to find out what is going on in the school. We use the Skoolbag app as well which sends notifications out to parents that anything that is happening in the school. But we also provide opportunities for our parents to come in and engage in the fun that we have as a school, so we have for example book week, we have the big book week parade as many schools do but then we have open classrooms. We have well over 100 or 150 parents that will come in and actually sit in the classrooms and engage in lessons with their kids and that gives them a really firm understanding that well look at the environment my child is in it's caring, it's safe, vibrant, it's happy. It gives them more of an understanding of what they can do to help at home as well.
Let's go to the explicit teaching. You've had a big lift in literacy and numeracy results; it's kind of an interesting debate as to how you engage children particularly in learning through reading. What are the approaches you're putting into place at the school?
I guess explicit instruction for me is the pedagogy of engagement. What we're doing is buying our kids time in the game and that was one of the things that we encountered when we first started back in 2016. We had a lot of kids that wouldn't go to class and we found out that one of the reasons for that is they weren't experiencing success when they were in there. We looked at ways that we could give kids the scaffolding to support them through each stage of the learning journey and explicit instruction as I said was really heavily supported by the evidence. But it was really having a great response for our kids as well which was most important, so getting the kids into the class was one of our first challenges and explicit instruction certainly helped us to do that. We do warm-ups at the beginning of all our literacy and numeracy lessons, what they are is really fast-paced, it's fun, it's engaging, it's previously taught content. That really embeds the basic skills that our kids need and transfers their information into long term memory which then frees up their working memory for the more creative high order thinking skills. They've been really, really helpful in getting the lift in our results but also providing our teachers with the platform then to move into that high order thinking style activity.
Was it a big professional development task for your staff, if you come in even though the direct and explicit instruction you're talking about is well covered in the literature it may not be part of the teaching experience of many of the staff. You arrive, you have a plan, how do you get your staff on board with that plan and how do you bring them up to speed with the capabilities they are going to need to execute it for you.
I was kind of lucky there because the Blue Haven staff had heard about the results that we'd achieved at my previous school. There were lots of questions around what did you do, how did you do it. Prior to me starting at Blue Haven a number of the Blue Haven staff came and visited while I was still at Barnsley and we did a bit of a tour and visited the classrooms and talked through the pedagogy and explained why we did what we did. And those staff went back, and I guess it spread like wildflower, that this is a lot of the staff that came sort of spread the message this is going to be great for our kids. I didn't go into Blue Haven with a preconceived idea that this is what we're going to do because I didn't know the context and context is everything when you're looking at change. As we looked deeper and deeper into the context of what was happening at Blue Haven, we realised that teachers didn't have a great knowledge of the evidence and what it said about what worked. We participated in lots of professional development, lots of professional reading just to upskill our staff and that really gave them the skills to question what we were doing and then support the change process that we were putting in place. We did lots of professional reading as I said and one of the things that we do at our executive meetings is in the first part of every executive meeting every Monday is that we do professional reading. So, every member of the exec chooses a reading and we analyse that, we reflect on it and that keeps us really current with what the research is saying whether it be in wellbeing, teaching and learning or leadership etc, so that was something we put in place in 2016. All staff were invited to come along to that, but it has been really a great response from the staff and their interest in learning more and building their own knowledge and capacity.
You mentioned wellbeing, it's a big focus of your work at Blue Haven you put in a deputy for wellbeing, talk a bit more about some of those wellbeing strategies that we can see in the school now.
That is one of the beauties of our current funding model I guess is that we have the flexibility to put initiatives in place that suit the needs of our community. We realised at the beginning of my tenure as principal, my deputy and I, we didn't have time to focus heavily on the direction of the change management because we were managing behaviour all the time. A lot of those behaviours we were reacting rather than being proactive, so we wanted to get someone in place that was really going to support the students and their families in making good decisions because obviously that behaviour is impacting on the learning as well. We used our RAM funding to employ a deputy wellbeing and that role initially was very reactive to behaviours putting systems in place but now we're at a stage where the behaviours have improved so much that there's lots of proactive strategies in place. So social and emotional learning is a huge focus for us at Blue Haven. We've got a Donny's Diner that we've got in place as well which is our breakfast club for the kids. We also put in place strategies such as our Early Birds program which is additional learning and support that takes place, any child that is on intervention is invited to come along to that. We have about 60 kids a day that come to that. Last year we had over 5000 hours worth of additional learning take place just because of that initiative. The wellbeing deputy's role is to oversee all of those initiatives and to support staff and to support parents so that their kids are firing when the get through the gates each morning.
You use Tell Them From Me, how important is the information you get from that? And do you get insights from that that you're not picking up through your other mapping mechanisms about the wellbeing of students?
We really do value the Tell Them From Me. I think back in the first year that I was in Blue Haven we only had 16 respondents, that was a bit of a challenge that we set for ourselves. Last year and this year we've had well over 100 respondents so we're actually getting really good data now. The data is giving us some really good information particularly around that student welfare stuff, so we do analyse it really closely. Look at how safe our kids feel at school, whether bullying is an issue, if there is something particular that we need to focus on, how people perceive the leaderships. The 'Tell them From Me' surveys are a great tool for schools, and we use it really well here at Blue Haven.
I am interested that you use some of your RAM money providing pretty fundamental services; you run speech pathology services and other things like that too.
We do. We have some great partnerships there we spend about $150,000 a year on speech and OT's so any child that comes into our Kindergarten classes at the beginning of the year gets a full speech and OT screen and they're all passed onto parents. But we use that data to inform our teachers as to what we need to focus on in Kindergarten but then also put therapy in place for the rest of the year as well. So to use our OT as an example, we have got a great partnership with Newcastle Uni, so we have an OT that comes in a couple of days a week and brings two fourth-year students in and some of the work that they're doing is absolutely ground-breaking. It's making a huge difference, so initially, it was looking at to find gross motor skills but we've now moved through to emotional regulation and teaching kids how to approach their self-regulation strategies as well which has been great.
Explicit and direct instruction as we said earlier at times a bit controversial, why is it controversial?
I don't get that, I really don't get that, there is so much evidence. You look at the work of CESE, you look at the What works document, you look at the early years reading strategies. My first foray into that turnaround schools research was with the Grattan Institute with Ben Jenson's work. It is really strong, the research behind it. I think people are drawn into those merging disruptive trends because they're cool and they're fun and it is great to be in those classrooms. And we still do lots of that sort of stuff at Blue Haven as well. We do the inquiry and the project-based?
So part of the suggestion might be well it's pretty old fashioned, that it is going back. You don't see it as going back?
Not in our model no. I mean there is a lot of misconception that it is didactic, it's just rote learning. Anyone that has been in our classrooms sees the high level of engagement with our kids. The way we had to set it up back in 2016 there was a lot of rote learning because our kids had so many gaps in their learning. If we look at what we're doing now there is so much movement through to applying kids' knowledge rather than just learning?
So rote learning around knowledge?
Knowledge and skills yes. Even the metalanguage that we had lots of, our kids didn't know things like times tables or how to find the perimeter of a rectangle, those sorts of things. Initially, particularly in our warm-ups, we had three elements; recite, recall and apply. We were doing lots of recite because that's where our kids are at. Now we are at the point where our kids are doing lots of application of knowledge. I guess that's the true essence of explicit instructions it's a gradual release model and if you're doing it well, you're releasing that responsibility back onto the kids as quickly as you possibly can. I think what people fall into the trap of is not releasing responsibility back to the kids and just being teacher-directed all of the time. That's not the model we use at Blue Haven. So, we release responsibility really quickly. And the better our kids are the quicker we release that responsibility.
Is it more work for teachers?
It is a lot of work. But that is something once again that we factor into it. We provide lots of support for our staff, we have collaborative planning days every five weeks, we have staff wellbeing sessions every term to make sure we're looking after them as well. It's a lot of work but when you get the results it's worth it. Our teachers always worked hard that is one thing that our teachers constantly say to us at Blue Haven; we always worked hard but we never got the reward. Now we're working hard and we're getting a great reward.
It's interesting, it's a theme that I used this year when I was out and about meeting with school principals all around the state; I'd say I know you're exhausted, it's a very demanding, very intense job, of course, it's tiring, there's always more work to do I just want you to be tired for a purpose and that you're really seeing the improvement and the improvement brings its own rewards. You've seen great things with these kids and if you got a young person who has come through Blue Haven and felt the lift themselves that you bring, you then send them off to high school. Are there transition challenges for students who may have come through your school and then is cut loose in a high school where perhaps there isn't that level of structured learning?
I think there are challenges for all kids that transition from primary to high but we're very aware of that as well. One of the things that we have done is network really closely with our feeder high schools. Both of our feeder high schools have been in and observed the lessons that our kids are participating in and one of the key messages, I remember sitting around the table with a group from North Lake High and one of the teachers said "wow we're just underselling these kids" like they were seeing what they were doing in the primary setting and realising that they need to up the ante when they get into high school. One of the things that we have put into place as well is that we're actually designing some starter lessons for Year 7 when they get to Year 7, to make sure that the teachers are aware of kind of the content the kids were finishing on at the end of Year 6.
It is a big issue I think and Maurie Mulheron said it to me in an earlier Every Student Podcast that transition is an area we need to work on, and I often think that Year 6 kids are at the top of their game. They are full of confidence, leaders, ran the school assembly, just almost at their happiest time at school and then six weeks over summer miraculously they're squeezed back to the bottom of the pile and there is a question whether high schools really know what these kids are capable of and are picking them up from where the primary schools have left them.
Yes, that's true and we're very aware of that as well so one of the things that we're doing next year, for example, is giving more flexibility in our Year 6 classrooms. We're going to send our Year 6s over to the high school more regularly. We're going to have the high school teachers come over and work with our Year 6 students, we're going to have more movement for these kids, so they get used to that movement that happens in high school as well. Looking at ways that we can assist them to be better prepared when they do go there but also to make sure the high school is better prepared for them when they do come over as well.
What you were saying earlier about release, if in fact you've filled those gaps; there is a strong skills foundation, there's a strong knowledge base, you're really releasing young people to be independent learners and that independent learning is going to be very important in their high school success?
Absolutely and you hear some great stories about that connection with industry a lot of the high schools have and giving kids the opportunity to be more flexible in the pathways they choose at high school so hopefully our kids will be really well prepared for that when they're ready for it.
As we said at the beginning, it's been a big year. All of a sudden, awards, attention, Sydney Morning Herald, photographers, lots of visitors; how are you dealing with all of the attention?
I'm really comfortable with podcasts Mark. I've got a good head for podcast so I'm really comfortable with this. Look we're really proud of what we've managed to have achieved as a team, it's not down to any one person so we're really proud as a team that we've managed to lift the result. It's not all about NAPLAN to us it is about providing pathways for our kids and our kids believing in ourselves is probably the greatest reward. The lift that it's given our community, back in 2016 there were plenty of people prepared to say lots about Blue Haven and Blue Haven Public School and it wasn't all great back then. But now in 2019, there are also lots of people talking about our school now it's very heavily weighted in the positive which is just great, it's great for our community; it's great for our school. From my perspective I want this for every child, I want every child to benefit from the turnaround success that we've had at the school, so we have lots of visitors to our school we're more than happy to have them. Within reason, we try to manage it to not have too many people in classrooms for our teacher's sake as well, we're really happy to share our story. Because back when I started the turnaround and school improvement journey, I didn't have people to share with and to pick ideas off so if people want to come and find out what we're doing and sharing the story we're more than happy to do that.
It's a great story and one of the things that I find quite compelling about it is that in the greater scheme of things it hasn't taken too long. It's three years and three years is a long time in a primary school student's life, but in the history of public education not too long. And I think at times we can fool ourselves that it is going to take decades to turn things around but with strong leadership, committal leadership team, alignment of strategy and resources, clear community focus, evidence-based you can make a big difference in a short period of time.
I absolutely believe that. The research says it should take six to seven years, but I think if you work smartly and put all the right things in place. The thing that we've done is we've moved quicker than the research would say we should have with the change, but we supported everyone along the journey. Very high levels of support using the evidence as a guide and it can happen quick, really quickly.
And if you want to know more about the story at Blue Haven, CESE, the department's Centre for Educational Statistics and Evaluation has done a case study and a video on Blue Haven and you'll be able to read that at the CESE website. And I'm sure that they will be continuing to be more reporting on what's happening at Blue Haven, you're three years in you are only halfway through that journey, right?
Thanks very much for your time today, Paul McDermott.
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 email@example.com. Thanks again and I will catch you next time.
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