Innovation Wrapped in Tradition

Knox Grammar School

“We are very proud of our traditions,” Business Manager Byron Cullen remarks. Respect and etiquette are valued as highly in 2013 as they were 80 years ago, he adds, citing the first time he visited Knox as an example. “One of the first things that I noticed about the school was that, when I stopped at the crossing, a Knox boy tipped his boater at me and walked across. It was the ultimate respect for the public. And I am still impressed today every time I stop at a crossing around the school and they tip their boater. They do it without exception.”

While traditions remain highly valued, the 2,000 student school refuses to stagnate in them. Instead, Knox is forward thinking, successfully striking a balance between a respected history and new methods to provide a superior education. Headmaster John Weeks describes the approach as “Innovation wrapped in tradition,” Mr Cullen reports. “We have the traditions, but we also have innovations,” he explains.

When Mr Weeks began leading the school in 2004, Knox was widely acknowledged for its rigorous academic standards. However, the new headmaster was determined to improve this already impressive education. His efforts have been quite successful and have gained widespread attention, including being featured on ABC’s Four Corners televised news report.

Mr Weeks and the educators at Knox believe that teacher quality has an enormous influence over a student’s education. The overall goal therefore has been to lift teacher performance, as well as to increase student engagement. “I think that education is all about teachers,” Mr Cullen explains. “We are putting our money where our mouth is. We are putting our resources [toward] enabling and properly equipping our teachers.”

To this end, teachers at Knox are carefully evaluated and instructed on how to improve their performance. The team regularly records classroom lectures and collects student feedback, then reviews and assesses that data with the teacher. The process is painstaking, but extremely effective. It is also rare in Australian schools, even though research overwhelmingly shows that this type of evaluation can play the largest role in improving teacher performance. In fact, Four Corners reports that most schools are too distracted by issues such as class size, national curricula, infrastructure, and funding to provide this type of effective teacher support.

Knox also stands apart in its ability to hire – and dismiss – teachers as needed, and to pay them significantly more. The end result, Mr Cullen says, is that Knox Grammar School has “the crème de la crème of teachers.” And, he adds, “We have the resources to be able to provide the services [they need] for professional development.”

Knox is a world leader in the area of positive education, based on the science of positive psychology, which aims to proactively increase mental resilience and wellbeing. This approach is in stark contrast to mainstream psychology, which focuses on people who already suffer mental health issues. “It’s like somebody has widened the net of psychology,” Mr Cullen explains. “Previously, it was about picking up people who had fallen off the cliff. We get up on top of the cliff and we actually start to improve the quality of people that aren’t sick, that don’t have a mental illness. You can make their lives better… and suddenly you go to 100 per cent of the population that you can actually help.”

In accordance with this theory, the Positive Education programme is designed to increase the mental fitness and resilience of every Knox student. The goal is to “provide something sustainable for boys which gives them resilience and positivity, [to see] the glass half full rather than half empty.”

The team is also taking steps to determine if the Positive Education programme is actually creating the desired results. “The problem is that a lot of programmes, they come and they go and there is no scientific measurement of them,” Mr Cullen points out. “So at the end of the day it is all a matter of opinion whether it worked or not. So we decided to go down a different route.” The team partnered with the University of Wollongong to scientifically measure the effectiveness of the programme. “We will be able to determine scientifically how it has impacted functioning of the school, the functioning of the boys and, provided that it is positive, we will then have something that we can tangibly say really does add value to the school,” Mr Cullen reports.

All Knox staff, including sports coaches, are trained in Positive Psychology. Each student is individually mentored by one of these trained staff members, who help identify the boys’ strengths and set academic and personal goals. “That mentor stays with him from year seven right through to year 12, so the idea is that the parents and the boys can establish a relationship with that mentor,” says David Hayes, who is in charge of marketing for Knox. “They can guide them through the school… They can discuss an issue over wellbeing or academic performance. It is really about establishing relationships and growing that right through the schooling.”

In addition, the students participate in activities and exercises that have been shown to increase performance levels and wellbeing, and the programme is supported by a licenced psychologist who helps to ensure that it is implemented effectively. The initiative is backed by the Positive Education in Schools Association (PESA), of which Knox is a key member. “Knox has been at the forefront of setting up a Positive Psychology Association,” Mr Cullen adds. The school also hosted an inaugural Positive Psychology conference on campus last month to promote the concept throughout Australasia.

Knox Grammar School has also been focusing on expanding and upgrading its facilities. “We are in the process of significant capital development,” Mr Cullen explains. According to a recent report by the Sydney Morning Herald, the school spent $56 million in capital expenditures from 2009 to 2011, an amount that was significantly higher than any other school in the area. Enrolments have been growing, Mr Cullen explains, and the school is taking full advantage of the opportunity that brings.

“Knox is very blessed to have the resources from additional enrolment and we sow that back into the education of our boys,” he says. New facilities will include a state of the art senior centre for boys in year 11 and 12, which will boast science labs, English rooms, a large seniors’ court and a canteen. The school will also continue to stay on top of new technologies. Already, with the help of the company Computelec, Knox is a “one to one laptop environment,” with a computer for every student and a dedicated IT department committed to helping students and staff “use the technology in the most productive way.”

Truly, Knox Grammar is at the leading edge of education and the team has been thrilled with the results of the school’s newest initiatives. Some challenges still remain, however. The greatest is the increasing cost of an education at Knox. “That is driven largely by the very significant amount of expense,” Mr Cullen explains. Leading the way in education doesn’t come cheap; nor do the best and brightest educators. “About 79 per cent of our expenses come from salaries,” Mr Cullen points out. In fact, teachers’ salaries are increasing almost everywhere.

“There is a worldwide shortage of teachers,” he adds. “So supply and demand means that teachers’ salaries will continue to increase at a rate higher than inflation. So the challenge for schools is to keep education affordable.”

Ultimately, Knox is determined to provide “a quality education at a reasonable price,” Mr Cullen says. A key strategy has been to use the school’s top notch facilities to generate revenue.
“We build great facilities,” Mr Cullen points out. “We then have to make sure that we utilise the productivity of those facilities as much as we can.” As long as it does not disrupt schooling, Knox will hire out virtually any of its facilities, including the hall, boarding centre, chapel, sporting facilities and swim facility.

“We see great opportunities,” Mr Cullen adds, “and we think that there is more potential to be able to utilise our facilities in non-school times. And we see that additional income as helping us to maintain and to moderate our school fee increases in the future.” The team is confident that, by keeping fees reasonable, Knox will continue to exceed expectations with its unique combination of tradition and innovation for many more decades to come.

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December 19, 2018, 5:12 AM AEDT