And, you know what that means? Seldom have I had a conversation with a person or listened to a commentator in any form of media who, through their experiences and as a direct result of their high level research into schools and the broader construct of education (sic!), is not an expert, nor at least, someone with strong and heartfelt opinions concerning this area.

Where else in life do we have such common experiences? What makes a good family? What were your experiences of childbirth and raising your children? What religion, if any, were you brought up in or thrust into?

There is certainly a vast array of such things with which we can all identify. But, schools are a different beast.

They are mandated for attendance to a certain life stage, vastly different in their context and operation, unique in some aspects, completely the same in others and, unlike many of the life experiences we take on, they are to a large extent, chosen by the participants.

And, though they may be re-defined over time, they might change and adjust…they are schools!

So, back to that question, what makes a great school? What makes great teachers and leaders in schools? What does great even mean? And indeed, what is the place of a school in the future?

Let me set the baseline for what I am going to talk about with the personal, strong-held belief that, notwithstanding the amazing and often breathtaking events that have impacted on schools and education, particularly in recent years, the place and role of a teacher and a school are going to be more paramount than ever in the life and education of a young person as we look to the foreseeable future.

These impacts emanate not just from those areas that directly affect schools and the delivery of education, particularly those that have a technological foundation, but the evolutionary, perhaps revolutionary, nature of societies worldwide and their consequent impact on all people, particularly children, and how that flows to them as students undertaking an education…and schools.

When I reflect upon my time of involvement in education from student, to teacher, to school leader, to system influencer (author, consultant, etc.) and, finally, returning to where it all began as a classroom teacher, the vastness of the impacts, in my mind, make the role of a school even more important for the harmonious progress of our communities, societies and, the world in general.

The world’s relative miniaturisation through the particular impacts of broad technological developments (I’m not sure that I’ll utilise the term advancements just yet), coupled with globalisation and the massive challenges thrust upon us by the environment and sustainability, in all its nuances, don’t just solidify the vital role of schools, teachers and universal education as it has developed since it became a goal whose access we sought for all.

But unlike the forecasts of decline and obsolescence, I would argue that the need for a system of equality with quality (great!) schools and teachers has grown exponentially.

It is an interesting discussion in a time of Gonski and funding questions through all of our educational spaces and levels.

So, what do I know about all this…well not much in a technical sense, to be honest, except for the impact I have seen, experienced, been a part of and, believe in most vehemently.

There has been a huge move in education on all levels to create (increase?) a system that is accountable for its outcomes.

The difficulty with the definition of this accountability and the measures of the success of a school is that they have become so narrow in their focus that they often miss the mark and do no more than cater for the political expediency of easy measures of success (or failure) primarily based upon the outcomes of standardised testing regimes, whether NAPLAN, or PISA, or VCE, or IB. 

Are they important? Yes, they are and provide material that can be utilised by systems and educators to inform future planning and resource allocation a well as potential learning plans and pathways for our young people.

However, are they the way to determine the success of a school? Absolutely not!

They are but a miniscule component of what we must take into account in making these judgements.

And even more so, when we are judging the effectiveness of an individual teacher in working with students, the most vital of all factors and different for virtually every student. 

I have seen teachers who have achieved absolutely amazing results with the group of students with whom they have been working when judged by some form of external assessment, but, I certainly would not have regarded as effective.

In many cases, the class results could have been even better without the teacher’s interference.

I have seen teachers working with groups of students whose results have been nowhere near the required norm, but whose success with the group and the individuals within it has been beyond measurement…academic growth, personal development, social interaction, citizenship, skill development, capacity to cope at all or deal with the horrors of some personal, domestic or social scenario…some measurable, some not, but, all vital for the successful outcomes we want to see come of a student, a class, a school, a system. 

So, which measures do we utilise?

Any and all, but, not as the only way to define success.

What I do know is that we can use them all and combine them with the most important aspect of a school which I would say is not necessarily measurable nor based upon years of educational research, but, which is clear, observable and the first thing that really hits you after spending a little bit of time in a particular school’s environment…the ‘Smell Index’ (and I’m not referring to the school’s capacity to manage its waste disposal systems).

You can see it and feel it all around you, the way a school impacts your senses and makes you take note of what is going on around you.

And these things are very different as they apply to each school environment, the same observation often leading to a very different level of ‘Smell’, on the ‘scientific’ scale from fragrant to rank. 

And what are you observing to determine this ‘Smell Index’ for a school? It is myriad constituent factors which, in no particular order, consist of:

  • The actual physical environment. But, by this, I don’t mean the ‘state-of-the-art’ buildings and facilities, the manicured grounds and fields, as nice as these are; it’s what is done with what is there and the resources available and the very observable manner in which these are treated by the members of the school community.
  • The dress code. Once again, it’s not that the latest fashion designer has contributed to the raft of uniform options available, nor that the uniform is a throw-back to the public schools of England from the early twentieth century, nor whether there is, indeed, no uniform at all. It’s how it’s carried and how it’s worn, the demeanour it portrays in a natural way by its purveyors. 
  • The human interactions and communications (in any form) of staff to student, student to student, staff to staff, to visitors whether members of the school community or not, of the school leaders to all. These messages are perhaps the strongest of all as a newcomer to a school community and take some time to gauge, but, the power of what they portray is formidable. Have you ever walked into a school via the wrong entrance and sought to find the way to reception? Then, you’ll know what I mean. As a person with cerebral palsy, this is always an easy part of the index to assess. And, on arriving at a reception area, how was the greeting? What were the messages conveyed, verbally and non-verbally, by the greeting you received? I always found this to be deceptively reflective of how a school was travelling, the skin that couldn’t hide the state of the internal organs.

    From the previous element of the Index, there are many other parts to unravel:
  • How staff talk about the school and the students. Big…Huge! What’s their message about their charges and their job? How do they see their role in relation to the most precious resource we have and the most important job there is?
  • How does the leadership convey their message and show its reality? I’ve seen some wonderful mission and vision statements from schools that may have emanated from the strategic planning sessions of an ASX200 company, but, have no relevance to improving the performance of a school. Or, that say wonderful things that a 360⁰ observation of the place shows to be delightful motherhood statements, albeit being entirely fake platitudes. This actually flows through to all facets of a school’s communications – I’ve always looked at such things asking the question, do these communications (newsletters, emails, strategic and tactical plans, annual reports, speeches at events, public celebrations, school reports, documents of policies and procedures) tell me about what’s really going on with a school and its students or are they just advertising and marketing material? They can be both, but, I don’t want to see just the latter.
  • How does the leadership talk about their staff? Is it with passion and pride or as if they are talking about a recalcitrant pet that can’t be trained properly? Do they really invest in the development of their staff, personally, and in terms of all the resources they have at their disposal, however limited these might be…time, training, mentoring, recognition, etc.?
  • What are they actually doing in this school? Is it clear that this school has a consistent and strongly held belief in the approach being undertaken to teach students? Is it clear that this is actually implemented in the school environment? Can the leaders, teachers, students and school community really talk about what this is, describe how it is being implemented and point to why it is effective or what is being worked on? Can they talk about each individual, not just the masses?
  • Is participation and success broadly and roundly celebrated across all fields of endeavour, is it ignored, or, is it just a means of hero worship?

Recently, I found a piece of paper I had cut out from a magazine which outlined a series of principles which were thought to underlie good schools and professional workplaces.

I believe that they are a very sensible and simple statement and tick off a range of other things I would also like to see as vital elements of my ‘Smell’ Index:

  • commitment to clearly and commonly identified values and goals (i.e., a shared vision)
  • a culture of collaboration and a sense of professional community within the school
  • leadership which is supportive and positive
  • the encouragement of leadership and risk-taking at all levels of the school
  • the use of teams and networks
  • an effective and democratic communications strategy
  • broad involvement in decision-making
  • a commitment to and investment in professional development
  • role clarity.

Obviously, I haven’t set out to define this Index and its impact in some form of scientific way whereby we can measure and compare schools and systems – there are enough (too many?) well-documented and utilised measures of school performance covering every possible aspect of its operation.

However, do any of them really enable an assessment to be made of the true culture of the school and the real difference it is making to the lives of its students?

Do any of them really get utilised to do more than make comparisons possible for the ‘tut-tutting’ of the political masters, mass media commentators and the broader masses?

I would argue that, when the ‘Smell Index’ has a fragrant rating, that is exactly how such valuable measures are utilised, in a clear, targeted and impactful way on the teaching and learning relationship, which, when utilised to evaluate and plan, will make a difference to the quality of student achievement.

My argument is to combine the scientific and measureable with the ethnographic and observable to determine the ‘Smell Index’, but, you know it’s not really an index at all.

The quantitative measures are vital, but, in good assessment terms, will only be summative unless the qualitative measures are sound and improving, this enabling the formative to occur…the ‘Smell Index’ is a reflection of the total culture of a school, of the way things are done and, in my opinion, will to lead to school improvement on all levels and in all measures if a fragrant rating can be achieved.

And, to my earlier question about the relevance of schools as we head to the future.

In times of unprecedented change and increasingly limited social contacts, the school as a community hub, modern and adaptive, but with the imperative of human contact and care, has never been more important.

I have the honour of continuing (possibly concluding) my teaching career at Camperdown College, a P-12 school in the beautiful south-west of Victoria with a rich educational history.

Here, the ‘Smell Index’ is very fragrant indeed, reflecting my earlier thoughts; the school’s performance in other indicators ranging across academic achievement, staff/student/parent perceptions of the school, student destinations, etc., are on a very strong, upward trajectory and the school’s focus is completely on how these indicators inform future teaching and learning approaches and interventions for all, absolutely all, students.

Smells pretty good!