WHERE A RICH EDUCATION BEGINS
PLC Sydney was established in 1888 after the Presbyterian Church purchased land in Croydon from the well-known retailer Anthony Hordern of Hordern Pavilion fame. The school was originally set up for 33 girls and grew until the current site was purchased in 1891. For over 129 years, PLC Sydney has been among the top ranking schools in the state.
Upon entering the grounds of PLC Sydney I am immediately struck by the beauty and grandeur that is the centrepiece of the private secondary school campus—Shubra Hall. A Victorian era mansion dating back over 200 years to 1869 and set on a hillside with views to the harbour from its tower, Shubra Hall is registered as a building of state aesthetic significance. The surrounding Victorian era gardens provide a very pleasant, albeit formal welcome to this beautiful campus in Sydney’s inner western suburbs.
I make my way along a path which meanders past a landmark planting of massive Norfolk Island pines, palm groves, oak, elm and a camphor laurel all arranged around what is essentially a central, oval-shaped garden with a series of courtyards. Seated in reception—a quaint little building which was the original stables, and is believed to predate Shubra Hall—I am impressed by what a pleasant atmos-phere this school seems to exude. This sense is enhanced as a video appears on the flat screen television to my right of the school symphony orchestra performing a lovely rendition ‘Gabriel’s Oboe’ by Ennio Morricone.
Shortly, I am shown to my appointment with Dr Paul Burgis who is currently in his seventh year as principal. He tells me a little of his background; a stint teaching at a school in Zimbabwe with his wife where by default he became the head of History, followed by employment at Scots College Primary in Sydney whilst he studied a PhD before going on to run the Master of Arts in Education program at Lancaster University in the UK.
“I came back to Australia to become the principal at Inaburra School in Sydney before taking on the role of principal at PLC Sydney. I’m an English and History teacher by background, I’ve also studied Theology so I teach Theology and Philosophy which I thoroughly enjoy. I cover subjects with our students that most other 15 year olds aren’t looking at. Most students wouldn’t look at the origins of liberalism or the differences between realism and nominalism or Calvin’s theology. But when they look at it, it opens their eyes to all sorts of things. We really try to get the girls to think. We also want our girls to read more. Our educational approach includes both reading and critical thinking.”
The conversation turns to the gardens on the school grounds which I know Paul is passionate about. “The gardens are wonderful because they are a bit of a metaphor for how we see things—helping girls to grow into young women. The gardens create a great sense of peace and quiet and also a lovely atmosphere to be in. They symbolise what we seek to do and that is to help people grow—we’ve got a very strong growth mindset for the girls. It’s a bit of a cliché but we really do want everyone to flourish. We’ve tried to set up a school that has excellence and reach. Excellence meaning you can achieve at your highest level, and reach meaning that we want to reach each student. It’s just a great environment to be in.”
Do you have a gardening program?
Yes, we have a gardening program in the junior school where the girls grow their own food and then they take that food off to one of the parents who is a restaurateur and he helps them prepare it into the menu. Once we set up our new junior school which is being extended at the moment, we will have an extended gardening program. We will have an insectarium, a turtle pond and a bee hotel. Jenny Gore [of the University of Newcastle!&s (UON) Teachers and Teaching Research Program] said, "a good education is excellence in the quality of the teacher, a warm classroom climate, differentiated learning for students and connection to the real world."We!&ve got a junior school specialist Technology teacher, a junior school specialist Science teacher and they teach alongside teachers in the classroom. We!&ve got a very strong STEM focus in this school $ع Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths.
I saw a beautiful piece performed by the school orchestra when I was downstairs earlier.
We have a full Symphony Orchestra. We have a Chamber Orchestra and then we have a Wind Ensemble, Jazz Band, Big Band, the largest Pipes and Drums band for girls in NSW, so there are lots of programs for girls to grow into. Plus we!&ve got a Baroque Ensemble where girls specialise in performing early music from the time of Bach, played on period instruments. It!&s an extremely rich Music program. We also have a rich Drama and Theatre program. We put on five productions a year including a major musical. We!&ve done Les Mis!'rables and many others.
Service Learning is an important part of education these days.
Service learning is a very big part of PLC Sydney. In Year 7 they go to a local aboriginal pre-school to work with the children. In Year 8 we send them to Allawah Presbyterian Children!&s Home which is for children who are hospitalised long term. In Year 9 they run a pet show for the Guide Dog Association. In Year 10 a group of girls go to East Timor to serve in the Presbyterian schools there, and in Year 11 they go to Vietnam to work in Ba Vi Orphanage. In Year 12 we have the International Justice Mission coming to talk about people trafficking and social justice issues. The girls have a lot of service learning around the school as well, and leadership programs.
The Exchange Program at PLC Sydney is one of the largest of its kind. The girls can go on exchange in Year 10. They can go to schools in England, Scotland, France, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, China, Japan, Hong Kong, New Zealand, South Africa and Brazil. We usually have about 70 girls go. This year we have a very big science trip to Europe so the numbers are a little smaller.
Do you have a lot of girls coming from a Chinese background and how do you find they fit in to this environment?
Out of 1280 students we have anywhere between 60 and 80 international girls at any one time. China would be one of the main countries they come from. Often they go into the Boarding House for Years 10, 11 and 12. There is an entry requirement which is very high, or they can go to PLC Armidale and do their ELICOS Program as a lead in if their score is a little low.
Generally the girls do very well and they really enjoy being here. It!&s different for them because everything in China is academic, academic, academic. Here the Co-Curricular Program -Debating, Rowing, Snow Sports!X and much more. We also run sports that are really popular with Asian girls like Badminton and Volleyball.
How does the school perform academically?
The academic program of the school is excellent. We range from about 58% of the girls getting in the top 10% of the state to 37%. Because we are not a selective school our numbers will change a little bit. We regularly rate in the top 20 schools academically even though we are not selective. At PLC Sydney we aim to produce students who not only achieve outstanding academic results, but also are well-rounded, engaged and confident young women. There is a big value add here. Our STEM Programs are extensive, as the girls come into high school they can accelerate in maths, they can do Years 8, 9 and 10 in two years then they can go on and do their HSC in Maths early if that suits them. Then they can spend more time doing extension 2 in Year 12. Otherwise we teach Cambridge international courses as electives in Years 9 and 10 which means!Xalmost all the girls in the state will do nine periods of Science!Xour girls can do fifteen, they can do the regular periods plus six periods of elective Science. They can do a range of Cambridge courses which are a supplement to what they would learn and really make the most of those middle years for them.
We have been the number one Public Speaking school more often than any other large girl!&s school. This year we had four girls in the Australian Public Speaking team. In Science we!&ve just received two major awards in America!X1st in creativity in Science and 3rd in Environmental Science for original student research, and that!&s because our girls won the NSW framework out of all schools and they went on to America.
Our Art Gallery has eleven exhibitions a year. As part of PLC Sydney's rich educational offering, we employ an Artist in Residence, Mathematician in Residence and Composer in Residence, so students are exposed to more than just a utilitarian education.
How is it that a non-selective school achieves such good results?
The program is set up so that the girls have a really good structure right through the school and they also have the electives which enrich it, we make the most of Years 9 and 10. The girls will consistently say that the relationships with the teachers are great. There is a very strong sense of focus and the school student culture is excellent. So the students want to do well. We select some girls that come in with an academic profile and they are selected so that they can help other girls. It!&s actually about the process of interaction between students, and students and teachers, the relationships become very important.
Is this a culture which goes back through the history of the school?
It does, it!&s a very rich culture. The whole school is really very positive. It doesn!&t mean we don!&t have issues sometimes, but the issues are tiny compared to other places.
What about social media?
Social media is wonderful and dreadful. It!&s wonderful because it gives us really quick communication. It!&s terrible in that it teaches us that shallow reading is okay, that you can find out things quickly from Wikipedia that actually need greater depth of understanding, that non-fiction is not necessarily valued as highly. Fictional reading is fine but non-fictional reading becomes a challenge because why wade through the reading when you can just get a quick answer.
How do you manage the issues around technology here?
This is always an ongoing challenge and we!&re looking to do a further development next year but we have a program where the parents are informed of what our expectations are and we ask the parents to come on-board. We have speakers come in and talk about the range of challenges. From day one the girls are taught about the expectations with regards to technology. There!&s a social side of it and a technical side of it. They need to be technically adept but they need to be socially aware of the impact. As the girls have their own phones now, we are about to implement a new cyber safety software across the school, that block harmful apps and web content across home and mobile devices. We are working on a system of cooperation with parents as to which sites would be limited on that.