Newland recently spoke to Headmaster Dr Timothy Wright about the changing face of education, technology in schools and how Shore has developed a program to help overseas students culturally adjust to life and learning in Australia.

Sydney Church of England Grammar School, better known as Shore, is an independent, Anglican day and boarding school for boys established in 1889 which now caters to approximately 1600 students from kindergarten to year 12.  Located in North Sydney, the school still sits on the site of its first building, known as ‘The Towers’. The original Victorian mansion was built in 1875 by German migrant, gold prospector, photographer and politician, Bernhardt Holtermann. The historic building, with its spectacular sweeping views out over Sydney Harbour now plays host to over 200 boarders from years 7 to 12. The school’s Northbridge campus has an Early Learning Centre which is co-educational through to year 2, and is also the site of its impressive sporting fields. 


What are some of the most important aspects of a good education and how are those needs fulfilled at Shore?

I think a good education is a combination of helping someone discover what it is they’re good at, their potential, and challenging them in ways that they would never challenge themselves.

It’s very important that an education is not simply about the classroom but also about the broader aspects of school life — being involved in service programs, sporting, musical and camping programs, as well as outstanding classroom environments in which we’re not interested in students who can just regurgitate information but who are actually learning to think. We find that once young people find something they are pretty good at, it helps build their confidence for a whole range of things. If students don’t engage in that broader education, they’re the ones who struggle a bit.

Shore has always been an all-round institution and we pride ourselves on that.  We put a lot of work into helping our teachers become very competent at the sorts of activities in the classroom that not only help a student learn, but also help a student think. We have got much, much better at that and we get good results, not from selecting students academically, but working with the students we have.

How has education evolved over the course of your career and how do you see it evolving in the future?

I think the biggest change I’ve seen is technology, going from an era when I started as a teacher where I was given a box of coloured chalk and that was it. Of course now we have much greater access to technology. I think technology has to be treated with a degree of caution. I’m not somebody who sees it as an unmitigated good in education. I think it’s a very useful tool but I think a lot of education sets out to be technological before it seeks to be educational.

We have always had a reasonably conservative approach to the use of technology, that is, we want our teachers to be using it and engage with it when that’s a helpful thing, but also not to hesitate to say to the students, “Turn your screens off, we’re actually going to work on this in a discussion group,” or whatever it might be. I think it’s that balance between learning to use technology responsibly but also actually understanding that the most important tool that comes out of a good education is in fact a first class mind. I think that’s the important balance.

Do you think parents come to Shore with concerns about the level of technology children are exposed to these days?

Yes, we get almost no pressure from parents to become more liberal in our approach to technology. We get a lot of feedback thanking us for the approach that we take. Sometimes teachers want to try something, and generally speaking, if somebody’s got a good proposal for a technological learning experience, we’re very happy to do it.

But generally the parents are grateful their child is not allowed, for instance, to sit in the playground at lunchtime with a mobile phone and text. They’re not allowed their mobile phones during the day and that means they have to interact, they have to form friendships, they have to learn to work with people face-to-face, and I think that’s really crucial for us to remain human.

What are some of the main challenges overseas students face when settling into the Australian education system?

I think one of those is obviously language. Quite a number of students are pretty good at what you’d call reading and writing English, but coping with spoken English and colloquial English can be a challenge and therefore we do have ESL (English as a Second Language) support for students in that situation. Certainly one of the things that give you the greatest confidence in social interaction is language, so assisting students with their language is important.

The other thing, depending on their cultural background, is understanding the different cultural context. So for instance one thing that some students from China find a little bit unusual is that they will be expected to play sport — it’s compulsory. I think they’re surprised at how significant it is in our culture, but I think they enjoy it.

If you’re going to be involved in business in Australia, having a capacity to know about sport and the broader culture is actually really quite important. So the kids eventually see this is as very positive. Over the years I’ve had some very good rugby players come out of places like Japan, Korea and Hong Kong.

Are there any specific programs at Shore that relate to this issue?

In the last couple of years we’ve had a program that focused on the cultural adjustment that occurs for students coming into an Australian boarding school ― they’re often called third culture kids. They’re not in their own culture, and not quite settled into the new culture, they’re sort of in between the two. We’ve become much more aware of the needs of these children.

They experience the classic emotional responses like regret at leaving what is familiar and an anxiety about the unknown. I think that’s normal. I think we’ve got much better at acknowledging these things through this program. That’s actually not only the case for students from overseas, it’s often for ex-pats whose children have been, for example, studying at school in Hong Kong, they’re going to feel similar cultural challenges in that initial six months.

Interestingly enough, the boys boarding here make a speech at the end of their time and many of the overseas students are the most fervently grateful for the opportunity that they’ve been given and say they’ve learnt an enormous amount about themselves and the world in that process, which is very encouraging to hear.