Inside Story

Good story, bad theory

An enterprising school principal mistakes mastering the system for fixing it

Tom Greenwell Books 2 June 2023 3078 words

“For every school that increases its intake of the advantaged and the able, another has to take on greater responsibility for educating the marginalised and disengaged.” Eoneren/iStockphoto

Steven Cook has a story that any school principal would love to be able to tell. A little over fifteen years ago the Victorian government closed the local high school in Albert Park, a well-heeled neighbourhood nestled between Melbourne’s CBD and Port Phillip Bay. Faced with competition from Melbourne Grammar, Wesley College, a handful of other independent schools and two academically selective public schools, enrolments had dwindled to fewer than 200 students. Amid concerns about academic standards, discipline and deteriorating buildings, the school’s council, and even its staff, bowed to reality and voted in favour of closure.

Then, unlike many schools confronted by a similar fate, Albert Park College was given a second chance. A well-connected community campaign created the opportunity for a completely fresh start, with new buildings, new staff and new students. And that’s where Cook entered the story, hired as employee #1 to direct the design and construction of an entirely new school and serve as its inaugural principal.

Today Albert Park College is tightly zoned with more than 1500 students, more than 200 staff and a series of campuses with names like “Studio 120” and “APC Lakeside” peppered throughout the suburb. Students produce their own plays, organise literary festivals with big-name writers, speak at major climate rallies and conferences, and light up school functions with dance performances (before going on to secure jobs at places like the Moulin Rouge, Cook tells us). In 2021 Albert Park College was voted Australian School of the Year.

In his new book, From the Ground Up, Cook sets out not only to document this remarkable story of rebirth but also to provide fellow principals and budding school leaders with a how-to manual, a manifesto designed to spark a revolution from below. “The educational theorists and policymakers have had their chance,” Cook claims. “Now it’s time for schools to lead the way, with actions, rather than words.”

Cook believes that attempts to change the system from the top down are futile, counterproductive even. But he has a recipe for success that principals across the country can use to improve their schools, thus transforming Australia’s education system from the ground up. “Where must this change come from? Schools, not bureaucracies,” Cook proclaims. “How can it be done? This book provides the answers.”

On the face of it, this is an improbable claim, one that requires the reader to believe that what works in a place like Albert Park can work all across Australia. When Cook fleetingly attends to this objection he protests that his community has “lots of public and social housing mixed in with renovated terraces” and “many people who rely on social security benefits and lower-wage jobs.” But only 6 per cent of students at the school come from the most disadvantaged quarter of the Australian population. This is more than at the nearby public selective school (3 per cent) or independent school (1 per cent), and it’s a wonderful thing that around a hundred students from very disadvantaged backgrounds are able to attend a flourishing school like Albert Park College. But it’s another thing entirely to imagine that the strategies that work in this context can be readily applied by principals of schools where 26 per cent or 46 per cent or 66 per cent of students are highly disadvantaged.

Cook’s own account makes it clear why this is so. He describes, for instance, the vital difference the significant voluntary levy makes in funding the “annual literary festival, music festival, cabaret, musical, plays, dance performances, science competitions, debating program, senior school formal and graduation evenings, as well as underpinning our top-class ICT.” Then he points to the importance of elaborate fundraising. Cook recalls that when an extra million dollars was needed to build a “Liberal Arts Hub” with cafe, library and open fireplace, he launched a “1000 Club” — “a thousand people willing to give up a $1000 to make it happen. We thought it was crazily ambitious but we raised $670,000 this way.”

And then there is the parent body in an affluent inner-city community like this: “natural change agents — strong-willed, politically connected, media savvy, used to getting things done,” people willing to volunteer “professional expertise in the most valuable skills you can imagine — business, architecture, property management, politics, communications and other fields.”

It’s fine to reflect, as Cook does, that “for a local principal, it doesn’t really get any better.” But it’s a bit rich to turn around to other principals, many of whom face a whole different set of problems (which doesn’t include making the 1000 Club work), and proclaim that “this is the story of how we did it — and how you can do it too.”

And then there is a deeper problem still with Cook’s theory of change, one that goes to fundamental questions about how schools and school systems improve. When we think about any stirring story of school transformation, it’s natural to imagine a sequence in which quality is enhanced — great teachers are hired, innovative learning strategies employed, a strong culture created — and then enrolments expand in response. With this picture in our minds, we wonder how the first part was achieved, and take the second part as its validation and vindication.

But as Cook himself makes clear, things aren’t so simple. Increased enrolments are the cause as much as the consequence of improvements in quality: economies of scale help fund better buildings and a richer, more diverse curriculum; a preponderance of able and motivated students aids immensely in promoting student engagement and a positive learning culture. And, as we have already seen, the depth of the parent community’s pockets, not to mention their reserves of social and cultural capital, is vitally important.

Complicating matters further, Cook describes how in choosing a school parents often employ shortcuts to evaluate their quality, like the look and tone of the uniform, buildings and grounds, or the choices made by their friends and neighbours. All of this means that you can build a great school and they will come; but it’s also possible that if you divine the secret of building enrolments you might end up with a great school.

As it turns out, Cook is frustratingly elusive when it comes to the story of what happens behind the school gates and inside classrooms, and it is only when he shifts his attention to the interface between school and community that he moves into gear, laying bare the realities of how schools compete for the “right” students. But the thing about this aspect of his strategy, in which enrolment growth drives improved quality, is that it’s inherently a zero-sum game. The schools that can attract more, and more able and affluent, students inevitably do so at the expense of other schools whose ever-shrinking student populations are increasingly made up of students from disadvantaged families. This is not a recipe for a revolution; it’s the sorry recent history of Australian schooling in a nutshell. So the candid story Cook tells ultimately undercuts his larger argument that Albert Park College provides a formula for revolutionising Australian schooling.

As far as teaching and learning go, Cook mentions many seemingly impressive initiatives and activities, but the discussion is rarely more than newsletter-deep. Instead of sharing a rich account of how these programs work in practice, Cook presents his accumulated wisdom largely unmoored from the particulars. Uprooted from their specific context and denuded of detail, sentiments offered as insights often arrive as platitudes. “Everything we do is pointless if the students aren’t listening. We must find ways of making school appealing, stimulating and even fun,” Cook avers, surely surprising no one. “In the world outside the school, technology is everywhere,” he explains for the benefit of readers who may have gone out on Millennium Eve and only just woken up. “Students communicate endlessly using social media and watch television almost totally on digital devices.”

Teachers playing professional development bingo will surely need a drink when they hear this one: “Given that we live in a world of constant innovation, students will need to learn to think creatively to invent new technologies and products and to solve problems.” Or: “Not having academic attainment as your goal is like a political party not aiming to win elections to implement its program; a football team not aiming to win the grand final; a racing team not striving to win the grand prix; an army not trying to win the war.” Indeed.

Largely absent is a detailed account of how the school got from A to B, leaving school leaders hoping to learn from the experience empty-handed. For instance, Cook breezily recalls that “when we discovered disappointing Maths results in 2019, we threw significant resources at the problem and managed to improve results dramatically.” That’s it. No elaboration on the exact nature of the problem; the lessons learned; how the resources were used; or why the reform apparently worked so well. All the reader gets is the part they probably already knew, that additional resources may help.

While Cook briefly alludes to his school’s NAPLAN scores in maths, he skips over the fact that in recent years its year 9 NAPLAN scores in writing and spelling have also sometimes been below average compared with students of similar backgrounds. There is a case to be made that these indicators are relatively unimportant. Or that there is a trade-off between the basics, measured by NAPLAN, and creativity — and ultimately the latter is more important. But surely, in a book that proclaims to offer a prototype for the transformation of Australian schooling, the issue had to be acknowledged and the argument made.

So much of the complexity of managing schools lies in the challenge of balancing conflicting interests and imperatives. As an educator with many decades’ experience, Cook undoubtedly knows this very well. At one point in From the Ground Up he declares: “Your true aim is to get students performing strongly because they have a love of learning for learning’s sake.” Noble enough, if hardly revelatory. But elsewhere he insists on the necessity of fostering competition between students: “When competitive requirements are removed, effort tends to cease and not much work is done.” With fifty pages separating these two proclamations, Cook doesn’t explain how intrinsic motivation and external reward might be reconciled or balanced, or even acknowledge the potential tension between the two. And yet it is in that space, in between, that the most interesting and important dilemmas reside.

Likewise, it’s one thing to criticise schools, as Cook does, for “policing student technology use… when in the workforce they will be challenged endlessly to become more proficient and creative in their technology use.” But doing so is dangerously simplistic if you don’t acknowledge the evidence of an association between technology use and declines in reading ability and learning in general, or the negative impact of screen time on mental health, or the association with disorders like ADHD, or just the perpetual cycle of edtech hype and disappointment. Cook doesn’t even explain how his school’s Bring Your Own Mac policy works in cases where families struggle with affordability, or disengaged students don’t bother to bring their device to class.

This is not to claim that some very worthwhile things aren’t going on at APC (it seems like they are), but only that Cook’s account appears not to do them justice. A book that also included contributions from students, teachers and parents might have shed more light on what the school has achieved. As it is, for much of From the Ground Up the reader is left guessing what really explains the school’s dramatic transformation between 2006 and 2023.

Eventually, finally, a partial answer does begin to suggest itself when Cook turns to the story of how an increase in enrolments can itself help create a successful school (as much as vice versa). The old Albert Park College’s fundamental problem, according to Cook, was that its few remaining students were mostly from the area’s more disadvantaged families. That only compounded the challenge of turning the school around and arresting further enrolment decline. “To put it bluntly,” says Cook, describing the equation that greeted him when he arrived on the scene, “only by attracting middle-class families that place a high premium on education could we get ourselves in a position to lift up those from poorer backgrounds whose need for a good education was even greater.”

Looking backwards, Cook could see the wreckage of the old Albert Park school deserted by its own community, abandoned by parents “voting with their SUVs.” Looking forwards, the new iteration of the school still faced the same cutthroat competition from its well-resourced near neighbours. Cook had to persuade the good burghers of Albert Park to park their SUVs at the local public school, and there was no guarantee he would succeed. “Our early intakes were on average from relatively low socio-economic backgrounds and we had to work hard to convince the whole community that APC was for them,” he explains.

At this point marketing really mattered, and on this topic Cook leans in and whispers plenty of frank advice to peers and protégés alike. “The importance of good communications is something that cannot be underestimated,” Cook explains. “Schools should spend money on education, not communications, some might say. But good communications are essential.” If you don’t believe him, check out APC’s website. As soon as the video starts rolling, with its images of solar panels, school ties and student-led learning, the message is crystal clear. Progressive, environmentally conscious, but affluent and oh so successful, if a teal independent were a school this would be it. APC promises to be just like a private school but without the stuffy traditions — the perfect pitch for an area that is thoroughly gentrified but retains its artsy inner-city aura.

Then there is what the marketing gurus call “physical evidence,” the tangible signs of a product’s quality. “One of the best features of APC is the building design,” Cook explains. “This is because we put lots of thinking time and resources into the way our school looks.” The emphasis here is not so much on how the buildings can enhance teaching and learning — no discussion of the problematic acoustics of open-plan learning environments, for instance, or the challenges of managing the distractions from students passing by. It’s all about how physical infrastructure works as a marketing tool. “This shouldn’t be considered a luxury,” Cook insists. “It is essential to your school’s future success, in part because the schools that are competing for enrolments, especially non-government schools, take the look of their campuses very seriously indeed.”

In a similar vein, uniform-clad students constitute a critical marketing channel, effectively acting as brand ambassadors and social influencers in their local community. Cook describes how he engaged design and branding experts to create a “colour palette that provides a consistent and professional aesthetic” for the campuses, uniform and “other touchpoints.” The school’s high-end (and expensive) uniforms, featuring a big A on the pocket, make it clear that Albert Park College is conceding nothing to the prestigious private schools it is competing with.

The idea of school principal as marketing manager may seem unsavoury, but Cook is unapologetic. “While many education policymakers think parents choose schools for their children based on the school’s standing in academic league tables, in reality it isn’t so straightforward,” he confides. “Experienced educators know that parents tend to form judgements according to common sense, often on first impressions.” If first impressions can be decisive, then the website, the uniform, the polish of a school’s reception, the view from the road, or the look and feel of facilities on open night can determine whether a child is enrolled at your school or the one down the road.

Of course, spin alone is not enough. Good marketers have to get the product and the delivery right as well. And we know that peers, parents and scale help mightily in creating a good product. So if the enrolment battle can be won, a virtuous cycle will likely ensue. Cook’s marketing savvy has evidently enabled Albert Park College to achieve just this kind of momentum, with entirely happy consequences.

Cook might claim that he has shown how the Davids can take on the Goliaths and win. And it is a striking fact that Albert Park College has achieved its dramatic reversal of fortune with only half the funding per student of the high-profile private schools it has to compete with. Doesn’t this show that it’s possible to defy the odds, to kick goals even when the playing field is tilted against you? It’s impressive, for sure. But, no, it doesn’t alter the basic structural equation. For every school that increases its intake of the advantaged and the able, another has to take on greater responsibility for educating the marginalised and disengaged.

Highly sought-after and successful public schools are widespread in the affluent suburbs of Australia’s capital cities. Their locations provide them with a decisive advantage in terms of motivated and privileged student populations, accompanied by educated and affluent parent communities (as Cook’s narrative richly illustrates). These human resources — peers and parents — and the social and cultural capital they bring can be as important as a school’s income. But not only does this fact fail to make life easier for schools in less well-heeled areas, it actually makes their task harder.

In recording how he won at the game of school choice, Cook provides a revealing glimpse of the incentives and imperatives school principals face as they compete for enrolments, and the methods with which they inevitably respond. His candour on the subject makes for a valuable account. But his claim that struggling schools can pull themselves up by the bootstraps by applying the solutions he has discovered in Albert Park (and that all bureaucrats need do is “stop meddling”) is not only flawed but dangerous. Such a conclusion discounts entirely the structural obstacle: the zero-sum competition for student enrolments that is at the heart of Australia’s educational woes — and which much of Cook’s story incidentally lays bare. •

From the Ground Up: How a Community with a Vision and a Principal with a Purpose Created a Thriving State School
By Steven Cook | Black Inc. | $29.99 | 256 pages