Located in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, St Catherine’s sits on five idyllic acres fringed with ancient Magnolias, and endowed with ocean views out over the inner city gem that is Bronte Beach. 

The girls’ school traces its origins back as far as 1856. It was founded by Mrs Jane Barker (married to the second Archbishop of Sydney) to provide a quality education for daughters of the clergy. St Catherine’s is Australia’s oldest independent, Anglican girl’s school.  It is a genuinely non-selective day and boarding school catering for over 1000 girls.

Headmistress Dr Julie Townsend recently spoke to New Land about the changing face of education and how St Catherine’s has evolved a broad curriculum which equips the girls to make a unique contribution to the world. 

How do you see tertiary education changing in the future‭?‬

St‭  ‬Catherine‮!&‬s Headmistress‭, ‬Dr Julie Townsend‭.‬

St‭  ‬Catherine‮!&‬s Headmistress‭, ‬Dr Julie Townsend‭.‬

I think degrees may go back to being much more generalised‭, ‬because we‮!&‬re moving into a world where technical capabilities won‮!&‬t be needed‭, ‬in areas like accountancy and law‭, ‬in the same way that they are now‭. ‬I think we‮!&‬re going to move much more into entrepreneurship‮!‬Xpeople being able to think broadly in complex situations and make difficult decisions‭. ‬For that you need a really wide‭, ‬general education‭, ‬and a strong knowledge base to link disparate ideas together‭, ‬make‭ ‬decisions and make inferences‭. ‬

I believe we are going to need people who are well educated and well rounded‭, ‬who can think creatively and critically‭, ‬synthesise information and make leaps of judgement from there‭. ‬

How are you adapting the syllabus here at St Catherine‮!&‬s to prepare the girls for a rapidly evolving workforce‭?‬

We have a big emphasis on STEM‭ (‬Science‭, ‬Technology‭, ‬Engineering and Maths‭). ‬We started a new course in the junior school called‭ ‬Create and Innovate where all the girls learn Coding‭, ‬Robotics‭, ‬Technological Skills and Competencies‮!‬Xthat moves through to the senior school‭. ‬We have Technology in Years 7‭ ‬and 8‭ ‬like all schools do‭, ‬and we have just introduced Information and Software Technology‭ (‬IST‭) ‬in Year 9‭. ‬Two years ago we introduced HSC Engineering Studies‭. ‬Alongside this changing pedagogical focus‭, ‬we also need to educate girls to be globally competent‭, ‬optimistic and confident for the future‭ - ‬and able to work in different cultures and contexts‭. ‬

Technology of course can be a double edged sword‭. ‬Smartphones and social media do perhaps pose a challenge to the proper development of young people‭.‬

The girls are not allowed phones on campus between 8.20am and 3.20pm‭.  ‬We started this at the beginning of the year and the parents are so pleased‭. ‬The girls also seemed to be very pleased‭. ‬It has refocused girls into talking with each other in face to face conversations‭. ‬Research is revealing that young people are doing a lot less exercise‭, ‬they‮!&‬re going to a lot less parties‭, ‬they‮!&‬re drinking a lot less‭, ‬but what they‮!&‬re doing more and more of is sitting on a sofa or lying in using their smartphones and computers‭. ‬That can bring huge disadvantages down the track because you have to be able to communicate face to face‭. ‬You have to negotiate face to face‭.‬

How does the Positive Psychology Program fit into helping the girls with these strategies‭?‬

Positive Psychology is integrated completely into the school and the curriculum‭. ‬Girls from kindergarten onwards will have tangible lessons in Positive Psychology‭. ‬We look at building resilience and a sense of meaning in their lives‭. ‬A lot of research shows that when things are going badly‭, ‬friendships work really easily‭, ‬and people are supportive‭, ‬helpful and concerned‭. ‬But often‭ ‬in situations where someone else is doing really well‭, ‬it can bring up jealousy and concerns about our own sense of self‭. ‬We have exercises in class to go through these sorts of problems that the girls face‭, ‬building in them a sense of resilience for when‭ ‬things go wrong‭, ‬a sense of hopefulness for the future‭. ‬Interestingly‭, ‬at a conference recently‭, ‬the psychologist Martin Seligman noted that we are living in a world of entitlement‭.  ‬Yet as entitlement grows‭, ‬many people are losing a sense of hope‭.‬

Where does this increasing sense of entitlement come from in our society‭?‬

In our society‭, ‬in almost every measurement‭, ‬we are better off‭. ‬We are better off health wise‭, ‬nutritionally‭, ‬materially‭, ‬international travel is easy‭, ‬we have everything we could possibly want‭, ‬yet people are always searching for something‭. ‬So people end‭ ‬up looking at all the bad things they have in their life‭. ‬We try to counteract this by having a‭ ‬‘hunt the good stuff’ entry in the girl‮!&‬s diaries once a week‭. ‬They think about what‮!&‬s going well‭, ‬what they appreciate and what they‮!&‬re looking forward to in the future‭. ‬They look at the good things‭, ‬and don‮!&‬t focus on the bad things‭, ‬which can be a tendency‭. ‬I think in a world where we have so much‭, ‬we are very conscious of what we don‮!&‬t have at the minute level‭. ‬We try to pull that back from the girls and say‭ ‬‘Look at what you‮!&‬ve got‭, ‬appreciate what you‮!&‬ve got’‭. ‬That really works and there‮!&‬s lots of research to show that when someone with anxiety focuses on what is positive in their life‭, ‬their level of anxiety decreases‭.‬

Does Service Education help the girls appreciate the good things in their lives‭?‬

Service Education reminds girls of the good in their own lives‭, ‬while encouraging them to think about how they can bring good things into other people‮!&‬s lives‭.‬

We have a Service Education Program that runs from Kindergarten all the way through to Year 12‭. ‬The girls participate in all sorts of activities from collecting money for charities to local community work‭. ‬We‮!&‬ve also been travelling to Nepal for the past eight years where the girls work with a human trafficking organisation‭. ‬We also collect for that organisation‭ (‬Asha Nepal‭) ‬all year‭. ‬

Positive Psychology‭, ‬STEM and Service Education are the three programs that overlay everything we do in this school‭. ‬

‮ ‬I understand the school is about to undertake construction of new facilities‭.‬

We are now very close to the construction phase of the new Integrated Research Centre‭ (‬RPAC‭) ‬which includes a Performing Arts Centre‭, ‬Aquatic Centre and Multi-Purpose Hall‭. ‬This is a significant project for us because the new facilities will enable the girls to raise their level of performance across academic‭, ‬sporting‭, ‬musical and cultural pursuits‭. ‬

The Research Centre will be a third space‭' ‬between school and home where the girls can have dinner and study‭, ‬while their parents are working‭. ‬It‮!&‬ll be a big community space and we‮!&‬re really looking forward to that‭. ‬The girls will be able to stay here quite late and get all their work done‭.‬

Is there a strong interest in sports and music at St Catherine'‬s‭?‬

We are the strongest sporting school in the Eastern Suburbs and we regularly come within the top 10‭ ‬in competitive carnivals‭. ‬Sport is also at the heart of what we do at the school because it develops those skills of punctuality‭, ‬discipline and striving‭, ‬and it also builds fabulous community and team spirit‭. ‬

Music is flourishing here‭. ‬We have over 20‭ ‬ensembles‭, ‬bands and orchestras and a musical every other year‭. ‬Academics are the baseline‭, ‬and it is expected that we do well academically‭, ‬but all the other pursuits flow into that and develop character‭. ‬Our purpose is to develop young women of character and intellect‭. ‬

We want our girls to be young women of integrity‭, ‬resilience and respect‭. ‬We want young women to have the skills to build strong‭ ‬relationships in their lives because that is one of the best defences against anxiety and depression‭. ‬Most of all we want them‭ ‬to go out and serve the world‭. ‬