Each school day, between 30 and 50 young people eat at the Breakfast Club at Aranmore Catholic College three kilometres from Perth. They are a mixture of students from refugee families, some unaccompanied minors, and others who have travelled a considerable distance to get school. The Club is staffed by teachers on a roster system and food is supplied by different sources including the local bakery, parents and Foodbank.
Aranmore principal Declan Tanham, says the Breakfast Club is a strong part of the school culture. "Originally it was set up to support refugee students who’d arrive at school without having had breakfast, but it has developed and now we see a blend including boys who are part of the rugby program who want to ‘carb up’ before class,” Tanham explains. “We embrace everyone and it's a bit of a microcosm of our school community when we look at who is at the breakfast table between 7.30 and 8.30 am on school days.”
Aranmore Catholic College has an enrolment of 700 students who come from many areas of Perth and diverse family backgrounds. Tanham states that proximity to the city is a considerable factor in attracting the diversity. Close to 20 per cent of the cohort comes from refugee communities, including a large group of Afghan students, some of whom travelled without family and now live in group houses funded by non-government organisations. There are many from African countries and some Iranian and Iraqi students. Approximately 150 students whose first language is not English are enrolled. The school hosts a New Arrivals Language Centre which has operated in the College for about 20 years.
Part of the school's mission is to support refugees and the New Arrivals Language Centre provides specialist language teaching and learning for students who move into mainstream classes once they have acquired sufficient English to manage the curriculum. Some refugee students arrive at the College without any experience of school after living in camps, and they are assisted with language skills, cultural knowledge and formal learning. The College has developed strong partnerships with organisations that provide community services. For example, some students access trauma counseling and others are assisted with accommodation. A social worker works with African families three days a week, and her role in making home visits has encouraged families to make closer contact with the school.
Approximately 60 Aboriginal students are another group in the community. Some come from regional areas of the state and live in hostels. Tanham speaks with pride when he identifies that nine of these students are graduating this year with five anticipating university entrance. Between 100-120 students are in the nationally recognised specialist sporting programs of rugby and netball. The students take a sports elective, play at an elite level and leave the College with a Certificate 2 in sport and recreation. A group of 60, mainly Chinese, Vietnamese and Hong Kong students, makes up the international full fee paying cohort who usually begins in Year 10.
Tanham is in his third year at the college. He was formerly a principal, a deputy principal and head of mathematics in several schools. His career is unusual, in that he began teaching prior to completing his degree. The previous school in which he was Principal had a large enrolment; over his eight years at Nagle Catholic College, Geraldton, the school grew from 700 to 1200. While Tanham agrees the roles there and at Aranmore are similar and organisational aspects are comparable, the smaller size of Aranmore, at 700, makes a difference. “It’s possible to feel a strong sense of community and there are opportunities to build closer structures in a school of this size,” he says.
Tanham says, as a leader, he was influenced by the teachers in his own schooling. He recalls, they "always gave kids, whatever their social status, opportunities to access options in their lives and build skills." Through studying two Masters degrees in the areas of Religious Education and Leadership and Management, he savoured a range of reading. When he lived in regional areas, he would accumulate a pile of professional texts, which became part of his ritual when he was travelling regularly to Perth for meetings.
This year he was elected to fill a vacancy as the representative of Western Australian Catholic secondary schools on the Catholic Secondary Principals Australia (CaSPA), one of the four peak school bodies that the federal government deals works. Tanham says about CaSPA’s role, "It's really important for policy makers to hear from educators and for us to be able to inform the debate about curriculum, the context of schools and issues about leading and managing schools, professional standards and challenges including teaching and learning and lives of students.”
Leadership in the staff
A model of peer coaching has been developed over the past two years at the college. All team leaders participated in a coaching program in 2014 and 2015 and this has provided the basis for a strong structure across disciplines to use professional conversations about teaching and learning. “It’s a melding of the AITSL standards with a coaching approach,” Tanham states. “It’s different from ticking a checklist or making a judgement at a moment in time because it is ongoing and offers the opportunity for a steady, reflective process with peers.”
"We who work in schools want all students to be successful. I know that the term, 'whole person' can be overused but our staff are committed to supporting our students in their development as young people and finishing the school journey. I think education is one of the keys to wellbeing and predicts possibilities for the future.”
Tanham has been strongly influenced by Australian and international research that articulates the strong evidence for completing school education as a strong indicator for success in later life. All students leave the college with some accreditation. For some this is Certificate 1 in Literacy; for others it means the scores for entering university studies. “Our students are here to be educated in the curriculum we offer, and we also want to provide opportunities for social and emotional growth and where we can, we also assist families in this work," Tanham says.
Wellbeing in the community is fundamental for Tanham, who sees that many students bring the complexity of their lives to their learning. Where possible, the school supports them to build personal skills. Chief Executive Officer of Principals Australia Institute (PAI), Paul Geyer, endorses the significance of focusing on wellbeing in schools.
“I’ve been interested in the findings of the OECD research report, ‘Skills for social progress: the power of social and emotional skills’ published in 2015. The report highlights the need for all students to acquire social and emotional skills as well as cognitive skills in schools in order to succeed in the 21st century. It measured the effect of skills on different aspects such as education, employment, health, family life, civic engagement and life satisfaction. Our staff at PAI deliver the health and wellbeing programs, KidsMatter Primary and MindMatters in schools across Australia, providing a framework to enable principals and teachers to support students and families.”
At Aranmore, Tanham identifies three main areas that promote and sustain wellbeing for students and the school community. "We want to build and nurture healthy relationships,” he says. “We aim to resolve conflict in ways that maintain respect and care between students. Our focus is also on developing supportive structures that show students we are maintaining a safe place for them.”
The major challenges for Tanham are about balancing the competing needs of different communities within the larger school community. There are educational imperatives for each of the different cohorts that require negotiation planning and pastoral care to assist all the students to experience success. “My vision is to offer all students a supportive learning environment,” Tanham says. “Students need a safe, nurturing place in which they can learn and thrive in the processes of developing as young people. This is the challenge of sustainability which I think all schools face.”
Perhaps one of the most reassuring indications that the College is serving its community effectively is in the return visits of former students. “We love it when kids come back and they report their achievements, which may include academic or training attainments, sporting or employment anecdotes,” Tanham says.” I like to think we have contributed to their stories.”
This article first appeared in Education Review, December 2016 and was written by Madeleine Regan, a writer at PAI.
PAI has run the John Laing Awards since 2004. It delivers two national wellbeing frameworks, KidsMatter Primary and MindMatters.