Commonwealth Bank Teaching Awards
Buxton Public School (now at Fairy Meadow Demonstration School)
Explicit instruction in evidence informed English pedagogies and efficient numeracy processes, combined with an uncompromising focus on ensuring students truly understand what they are taught, has transformed Buxton Public School into a star NAPLAN performer.
Joining as Principal in 2016, Alison Rourke used an instructional leadership model to shake up the semi-rural NSW primary school, whose results had been quietly slipping.
The approach advocates individualised teaching using specific, proven methods, while helping teachers critique their own practice from the point of view of students.
Alison backed up the transition with extensive professional development for her staff, including interstate visits to observe classes based on Visible Learning and Spirals of Inquiry, which she credits with transforming Buxton’s NAPLAN results.
33 per cent of students achieved in the top two bands in reading and numeracy in 2018, up from 9 per cent in 2015.
Arriving at Buxton Public School in 2016, Alison Rourke’s first task was to raise expectations – of students, parents and teachers.
The small, semi-rural primary school in the Wollondilly, where Sydney’s suburban sprawl finally runs out, was languishing; literacy and numeracy scores had been steadily falling and 85 per cent of parents said they felt disengaged from the school and its programs.
“Children had little understanding of why they did what they did and certainly no understanding of why it mattered,” Mrs Rourke said.
Looking to make a difference fast, Mrs Rourke employed the Visible Learning approach, which helps teachers understand and critique their own practice from the point of view of students, and adjust their methods for maximum impact. She worked collaboratively with her leadership team, supporting professional development opportunities and ensuring everyone was on board with the rationale for the new programs. She then co-led a study tour to Melbourne to see Visible Learning – developed from a vast meta-analysis of studies from many nations - in action in classrooms.
The Visible Learning framework endorses explicit instruction in English and mathematics programs, as methods that have a proven benefit. This encouraged teachers to become proficient in this teaching style, allowing them to cater to different ability levels within classrooms, Mrs Rourke said.
The transition has been a phenomenal success, and Mrs Rourke credits it with transforming Buxton’s NAPLAN results – from 9 per cent achieving in the top two bands in reading and numeracy in 2015, to 33 per cent in 2018.
Visible Learning, Spirals of Inquiry and the work of Anderson and Jefferson around the 4C’s - collaboration, critical reflection, creativity and communication skills, has helped teachers recognise how to support individual students to make the most of their strengths – both academic and personal. “We want to ensure each child is known, heard, valued and cared for,” Mrs Rourke said.
In parallel with this rigorous focus on classroom teaching, Mrs Rourke worked to open up the formerly insular school to its local community, which has a relatively high level of social disadvantage. She made connections with local preschools and centres through a Little Library scheme, sharing Buxton Public’s resources with the children and staff and promoting the children’s familiarity with ‘big school’, and she visited the preschools to make presentations to parents about school readiness.
At the same time, Mrs Rourke won a grant to establish a network of five local schools under the banner Aspirational Communities, to share experiences and present a united story to local people about the expectations they should hold for quality education and students’ achievements.
Over the three years, enrolments in Kindergarten dramatically increased as Buxton Public became better known among local residents. Improved communication and concerted efforts to involve parents have greatly improved engagement levels, and only 5 per cent still say they feel disconnected. Mrs Rourke nominates working with parents as an area of particular career interest, which she hopes to pursue in future.
Mrs Rourke has moved from Buxton this year to take up the Principal’s post at Fairy Meadow Demonstration School in suburban Wollongong.