With its 20th anniversary around the corner, Sydney Secondary College has much to celebrate and look forward to, reckons its principal Ian Bowsher.
Thousands of kids have successfully schooled their way through the three College campuses, and those there right now - lockdown disruptions aside - may have lucked in, given the credentials Bowsher brings to the job of overseeing the education of more than 2500 inner west students.
"SSC is a really exciting place to be at the moment because the sky is the limit as to what it can do," says Bowsher, who has just marked a year at SSC and heads up a relatively new and "fresh-eyed" leadership team of four, including himself and the principals of Leichhardt, Balmain and Blackwattle Bay campuses.
"We are coming up to 20 years old in 2022; It takes a while to work out how to make colleges work well, as it does any school, but you just get better and better at addressing the needs of the community."
When Bowsher left his former posting late last year as principal of Barrenjoey High School on Sydney's northern beaches, he farewelled a community that locals say is stronger for his contribution.
After 13 years there was sadness all around at his departure.
"It is with a heavy heart I write this email," Bowsher wrote as he informed the Barrenjoey community of his new appointment at SSC. "This place, this work, and its people have meant so much to me."
Media commentator and local resident Mike Carlton tweeted his own tribute: "His leadership inspired change in our community. The school is now a great example of what public education can be.
"We are all sorry to see him leave."
Says Bowsher, who commuted every day from Drummoyne, where he lives with partner Janina, to the northern beaches, "I was going to move earlier from Barrenjoey, but I was involved in so many great projects and I wanted to bring them to fruition - the school was operating so well I could do other community-based things."
Those projects included the building of the Barrenjoey Community Performance Space, a purpose-built, state-of-the-art theatre that opened in late 2019.
He was also instrumental in establishing the Avalon Youth Hub, a community mental health service supporting the emotional wellbeing of young people that was born from a series of suicides that rocked the community several years ago.
Bowsher is bringing to SSC the same attention to the emotional wellbeing of students, he says, describing it as "definitely" a particular interest
"I've being touched with mental health disorders through students and through families for many years and I realise how impactful it is on lives," he says.
Already, more fiscal resources are being funnelled into supporting students directly, he says, through more counsellors, and through teachers having more relief time to help students as year advisers and mentors.
This little old three-campus public school really needs to provide the services and the trust for those parents to make the decision to keep their kids local.
"We have an Aboriginal support officer, and a learning support officer - all of those types of resources have increased dramatically in the past 10 years in schools; some are funded by government, but others are funded directly by schools because they feel they still need more."
To a student on the ground at SSC, the investment in their wellbeing means more individualised attention. In a major early initiative under Bowsher, more than 30 teachers have voluntarily undergone additional training to become academic coaches who, in a one-on-one process, will help students identify their strengths and weaknesses and set goals for themselves that will be stored electronically and revisited twice a year.
"You can't just throw 50 kids in a class and treat everyone the same anymore," Bowsher says. "Class sizes are one thing, but individually you are coming up with a plan of how that child is most likely going to succeed in life - pastoral care, academic support, career guidance; all those things are areas where more and more resources are being directed."
In the inner west about 50 per cent of pupils at the College's 14 feeder primary schools make their way to SSC, Bowsher says, the rest peeling off to various private schools.
"It is a goal to increase that percentage," he says.
"My passion is that local students go to their local school. Over the last number of decades more students have been leaving the government system and going to non-government schools, so you have to question why they are doing that - why public education is good enough in the local primary schools but suddenly it isn't good enough in the high schools.
"This little old three-campus public school really needs to provide the services and the trust for those parents to make the decision to keep their kids local."
As to what those services look like, "the parents should tell us that", Bowsher says. And trust is paramount - trust in the educators and what students experience, and trust that kids can gain success.
It was a formula that worked at Barrenjoey, where faith in the local school increased enormously - more than 80 per cent of local kids now go to Barrenjoey high, up from less than 50 per cent when Bowsher arrived.
I have the crazy goal of making it the best college in NSW.
"And that wasn't because of one magic cure, it wasn't a panacea we were looking for, it was trust, honesty, and meeting the needs of local students and parents; and then gaining the individual results that students wanted."
As part of boosting the 50 per cent figure in the inner west, Bowsher plans to actively involve the 14 feeder schools in transition programs that promote a sense of continuity from primary schools to the College - and give more kids the chance to experience the benefits of going local.
"They get to go to school with kids they are living up the road from; they get to understand what diversity is all about; and they get to spend 13 years moving through and growing together in what is a really authentic environment."
It was the 1970s and Ian Bowsher was 8 years old when he emigrated to Sydney from Wales with his parents and two older brothers, and he recalls how hard he and his brothers worked to assimilate.
"When I first went to school which was Gardeners Road Primary near Eastlakes, no one could understand me. It was a melting pot any way because there was a lot of immigration, but with a strong Welsh accent I had to work pretty hard, as the three of us did, in losing our accents so we could be understood."
Bowsher completed his primary schooling in Sydney's outer west, where his parents bought a house at Regentville on the banks of the Nepean and the boys went to Nepean High.
He always wanted to be a vet scientist or a chemical engineer, and was offered university spots in both courses, as well as teaching which was his No. 6 choice. "I actually realised I didn't want to do the other two; I received my HSC results and at that very moment decided, 'I think I am going to give teaching a go; I think it is the most socially involved of the three'."
I want our students to be happy and, without them knowing it, to be advocates for the College system.
Fresh out of Wollongong University, in 1990 he took a job as PE teacher at St Johns Park High School in the south-western Sydney suburb of Greenfield Park, where less than 42 per cent of residents were born in Australia.
"I loved the diversity," he says.
By 1997, ambition for a senior role saw him move 14 kilometres further south to Holsworthy High School in Greystanes as the head teacher of PDHPE. With the area being home to the Holsworthy Army Barracks the population was transient, but the community and parental involvement in the school was nonetheless significant and led to "all sorts of great initiatives; I loved that side of things."
By the time he left for Barrenjoey in 2008, he had been deputy principal at Holsworthy for six years and relieving principal for one.
He sees his job at SSC as bigger than his previous roles, and very different, because each campus has its own principal and "they are all great operators and I am not directing them or telling them how to run the schools - my motto at the bottom of my email is three great campuses, one great college - but it is a job where it is a little bit political, where you want all principals to be thinking along the same lines in certain elements of the role; where they still have their independence and school nuance, but there is a college theme that runs through things."
The challenge, says Bowsher, is to create a theme that is long-lasting - "I am not looking for tokens, or for a shiny object to make it work" - and so as a first step, the campuses have agreed on a College learning plan approach, where students receive grades on their reports that relate to a college grade average, enabling them to monitor their own learning, assisted by the newly instituted academic coaches.
"The college grade average is about an individual student achieving what they are aiming towards, because we are asking them to set their own goals and then we just need the support systems to get them there," Bowsher explains.
"And we want the parents to be separate to that goal setting so that kids don't feel they are pressured to take on board the goals of their parents.
"That is radical for some parents, but a breath of fresh air for most students."
Seated in a meeting room at the waterfront Balmain campus, where he regularly catches up with the other three principals, Bowsher has no hesitation in declaring his ambition for SSC.
"I have the crazy goal of making it the best college in NSW," he says.
"There aren't that many colleges in NSW, only 13 multi-campus colleges, but we are the closest to Sydney and probably the most cosmopolitan, the most diverse.
"We probably have the largest HSC cohort and the greatest number of subjects, so we have a lot of really positive things happening already.
"The goal is to have all three campuses maintain their uniqueness while driving together to be hugely successful."
As to what that success looks like, Bowsher says the college will measure it by the contentment of families and students' individual successes, rather than the school's ranking according to band 6 HSC results.
"Ultimately the media measures us that way, but I'm not really that much of a traditionalist."
Indeed, he believes the categorising of schools according to their band 6 results should "absolutely" stop, describing it is a distorted, limiting view of schools.
"There are all these other kids getting great results in band fives and fours, and if you were a parent of a child getting C grades all through life and then suddenly they go to band 5 in the HSC, you'd be thrilled.
"The point in reality is, why are we comparing schools? They are all responding to their community, so in reality education should be measured by the parents and the students of that school and what they need and what you are doing to address those needs, not whether you are trying to build the most academically successful school in the state.
"We know James Ruse is going to be that because of its cohort - that has already been determined seven years ago."
Nonetheless, he believes getting Blackwattle into the top 150 schools for HSC results won't be a problem. "I don't necessarily have a personal ambition, but I think that will be a result of each student achieving what they want, which collectively will automatically lead to the results being fantastic.
"It is about each student being satisfied with their outcome; with their education. I want our students to be happy and, without them knowing it, to be advocates for the College system."
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