Happiest Days

Aquinas College

At the end of this year Tony O’Byrne will leave school. He has been there 25 years…

That’s a big chunk of anyone’s career and Mr O’Byrne has spent it as principal of Aquinas College, a leading Catholic regional co-educational school located in Ringwood, 25km east of the Victorian capital, Melbourne. In a valedictory interview with Business in Focus, he admitted some inevitable regrets at leaving, but spoke more of the happy memories and the record of achievement that leaves the school well placed to continue to progress under its new Principal, Darren Atkinson.

The school was founded in 1961, administered originally by the Christian Brothers although not a school owned or governed by the order. As a regional establishment, its governance is vested in parish priests in the parishes that make up the region – nowadays the most popular model for Catholic schools in the state. Ringwood was settled by largely Dutch and British immigrants, so diverges somewhat from the cultural mix of Melbourne itself. Mr O’Byrne explains, “The area is not predominantly Catholic although there are several other large schools there that are run by the Church, as well as numerous government and independent establishments.” Aquinas, although openly Catholic in its values and education, is not funded by the Church. It is probably the largest school in the region, having grown from about 1,380 students at the time of Mr O’Byrne’s arrival.

Aquinas takes its students from a radius of 10 to 12km around the campus in the foothills of the Dandenongs, 90 per cent of the intake being Catholic, although this is not a stipulation. The school currently has approximately 1,670 students total, with a few more to come as more students are staying in school longer – attracted mainly by the Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning option in years 11 and 12.

Fees are modest and the same regardless of the attending child’s age – around $4,500. Mr O’Byrne shares that, “recent years have seen significant building development around the spacious campus. We are in the process of completing a very large programme which will enable some older buildings to be demolished to create a better sense of open space. But the campus is rather nicely landscaped. There are two football fields and a soccer pitch, while there is a regional sports oval on one of the boundaries as well as a new local Council swimming complex under construction.”

The school’s buildings are unusual, in that they have been designed for greater visibility than the norm, with a conscious effort to ensure that classrooms and gathering places are open to view, and that both teachers and students can see what is going on around them. Mr O’Byrne says, “this trend is spreading across other schools and Aquinas has had a steady stream of educators coming to see how it is done and how successful the policy is. It helps everyone to understand they are all part of the learning community, which is what we should be about.”

An early adopter of this approach, Aquinas also shows an innovative spirit in terms of information and communications technology (ICT), having switched entirely to tablets rather than books. Every student in years 7 to 10 purchased an iPad at the start of 2013. “The rollout was managed carefully to ensure that students and teachers could adapt to this new technology and the changes in pedagogy seamlessly,” says Mr O’Byrne. The move is likely to save parents at least $500 over the course of three years; it also puts a very engaging ICT tool in the hands of students. “They have learned to use the tablets responsibly remarkably quickly. There are apps that are banned by the school, which is able to monitor what is on each student’s machine. I have had to deal with less fallout this year over social networking sites such as Facebook as compared to previous years,” Mr O’Byrne explains.

He believes there is only one potential downside to the adoption of the latest ICT, and that is with regards to handwriting, as more and more children are learning to type rather than write by hand. Teachers also need to position themselves differently in classrooms, to ensure they can see what students are looking at on screen. “Overall I think both students and teachers have integrated into this new technology much more quickly than we might have anticipated. That is the result of preparation and forethought on our part.”

The new Headmaster, Mr Darren Atkinson, will bring additional experience in ICT use that will enable the school to continue down the path opened by Mr O’Byrne, who leaves at the end of this year. He cites two things as his proudest achievements: “the introduction of a policy to promote the performing arts in the school, which has had the effect of [our] students becoming a very supportive and listening audience for dramatic and theatrical performances and music. Also, seeing how [our] focus on student learning as a priority has ensured that we now see students much more engaged in their learning. I think the very best pastoral care for students is to make them as successful with their learning as possible.”

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

June 21, 2018, 6:37 AM AEST