Located in the beautiful New England Tablelands, midway between Sydney and Brisbane, PLC Armidale is a girl’s school which encourages the pursuit of excellence in all aspects of life. New Land recently spoke with Principal Nicola Taylor about her thoughts on education and particularly PLC’s unique Pathways program which is forging new ground in intensive English language acquisition and cultural familiarisation for international girls.
Nicola has been involved with education in the independent school sector since 1985. After studying education at the University of NSW, Nicola undertook post graduate qualifications at the University of Southern Queensland in teaching gifted and talented children followed by a Masters of Education at Sydney University.
You are obviously still very passionate about education?
Yes I am. It’s a passion that I’ve actually had since childhood. My mother was a government school principal and so I grew up in family where education was valued. I was exposed to good quality teaching and learning practices as a child and I enjoyed the challenge of thinking about the nature and purpose of education. Moving into a career in the independent school sector, I had to wrestle with the philosophies around independent schooling and the choice available for families as well as the capacity of an individual school to really create its own educational culture and broader school culture.
I was interested in a career in the law, but my decision to remain in education was really about the profound influence that educators have on the next generation and the heart connection – the real mission and connection which really drew me into the profession because there is a noble pursuit involved in education that perhaps is quite different to the corporate world.
What are some of the hallmarks of the educational culture at PLC?
We are a school of academic excellence; we are the highest performing school in Armidale and a very high performing school in the wider region. Last year we were ranked as the fourth regional school in all of Australia according to the NAPLAN measures. We are a school where education is highly valued by the parents, and an academic education is important. But we are, a school that is educating for all of life, promoting a love of lifelong learning within our girls – educating all areas of their lives.
Students of Presbyterian Ladies’ College Armidale
We are renowned in our region for musical excellence and musical opportunity and we are a very high performing sports school with girls participating right through to national sporting teams. Those girls who are attaining very high levels in music, or sporting achievement, are doing so because parents are partnering with the school. We’re facilitating pathways, but the parents are also really committed to their daughters’ education in those additional areas.
We are a small school in terms of student enrolment which is reflective of being in a regional area. Armidale is not a typical regional area however, the presence of the University of New England, which was established as a campus of the University of Sydney, generates a value on education within our community. Within our region, Armidale is a central hub for business enterprise, for the judicial system, and it is also the home of our Deputy Prime Minister. The diversity that these enterprises bring to a regional centre is reflected in our school community. We are on very spacious grounds as well. Our large campus allows us to have facilities and experiences for girls that many schools in Sydney would be very envious of.
What are the areas of education that you are particularly interested in?
My original background was in primary education, that is Kindergarten to Year Six, within that my specialisation was in the independent school sector. That focus fuelled a zeal for the rights of parents to exercise choice in the education of their children, both as a fundamental right within our nation and as a parental responsibility. That led me into an interest in the history of education in our nation. Education in Australia was not actually started by the State but by private enterprise, by committed Christians of the day who wanted to see the children of the colony educated and prepared for a more positive future than their parents may have had. Professionally my academic pursuit has always been in the area of teaching and learning across the stages, not just restricted to a particular section of schooling. Rather looking at the hallmarks of quality teaching and learning practice.
Students of Presbyterian Ladies’ College Armidale
Can we talk about students coming from overseas and trying to settle into an education here, particularly from China?
One of the things that I have noticed in students coming from countries with a language background other than English, such as China, is that the students often have a very positive work ethic. They value, and their family values, a high quality education. The language is a significant inhibitor for them achieving the levels of proficiency that they should in Australia. That led me, last year to seek an application to establish an intensive English language facility (ELICOS) located in the grounds of PLC Armidale.
Families from China who are looking to access schools in Australia can now choose to have their daughters come to our program, PLC Pathways. It is a unique program within NSW for a number of reasons. One is that it is within a school – a high performing school in the independent sector and secondly, because our program is residential.
In PLC Pathways students undertake up to one year of intensive English language study Our program is broader than most ELICOS (English Language Intensive Courses Study) providers. Being located within a school we are starting with where we know these students need to end. When the students graduate from Year 12 in a NSW school, we know that they will need a very high level of language proficiency, fluency and accuracy to enable them to demonstrate in their exit credential (HSC), the level of learning and understanding they are capable of.
We also have included in our program, studies in mathematics and music. Our experience of students from China is that often mathematically they are very advanced and their music skills are often developed to a very high level. So whilst for their intensive language studies they might find the English language component challenging initially, their capacity to study music and mathematics at a very high level gives them an outlet experiencing success as a learner.
The girls are also involved in the life of the school, they wear our school uniform, they have recess and lunch time in the grounds with our day students and our boarding students. They are residential, so they live onsite; in the boarding facility with our boarders. They can be involved in co-curricular programs, in choirs and orchestras. They are involved in a wide range of sporting activities across the college. They are also involved in our Chapel program and our assembly program.
For students who are making a transition from China, where education is delivered in a very different way than Australia, we’re providing a natural segue into Australian schools by allowing students to learn the language to a high level whilst also learning the culture of Australian schools. We recognise not all students will want to live in a regional context, so we are facilitating enrolments in schools in Sydney and eventually Melbourne as well.
I think that families from China struggle to understand just how different education in Australia is. There are much smaller class sizes and our interest as educators is very much on the whole child. There may also be a lack of understanding that studying in a regional context in Australia, does not mean provincial or poor quality.
I’m hoping to build an understanding that an educational experience in a regional setting for students coming from China is often an education without all the distractions that might take the focus away from their studies in some of the city centres. We are preparing students for university entrance with the University of New England located just five minutes away.
Our target enrolments for the Pathways program are effectively students who whilst they may have quite a low level of English on an AEAS (Australian English Assessment Scheme) measure, they are keen and capable learners. We are seeking to develop their skills to a level of proficiency which allows them to seek enrolment into the schools of their choice.
At the moment our initial enrolments are from mainland China but we also have connections through into other countries in South East Asia and the subcontinent and we’ve already been approached by some individuals in European countries who are interested in coming to Australia. They like the fact that our language program is all encompassing. It is all about school readiness and preparation for learning in the Australian school context as much as it is about English language proficiency. Those factors make us a very unique provider in the marketplace.
For more information visit: www.plcarmidale.nsw.edu.au
Presbyterian Ladies’ College Armidale
This article is also available in: Chinese traditional