Wirreanda Secondary School is situated in Morphett Vale in the southern suburbs of Adelaide and serves a student population of 910. The word ‘Wirreanda’ is an Indigenous word for ‘place where wallabies live under tall trees’. Wirreanda SS has an ICSEA rating of 946 with a cohort comprised of approximately 10% of students with an Indigenous background, 12% students on a Negotiated Education Plan with a disability, 5% EAL/D learners and 40% of students who receive higher levels of government funding for education to supplement family income.
School leaders are focused on high expectations, innovation and improvement. They identify their central purpose as developing students’ learning and wellbeing, and they recognise that the most critical driver for this development is their focus on continued improvement of their teachers and leaders and fostering genuine student voice.
Morphett Vale and the surrounding Onkaparinga Community has a high level of unemployment/part time employment, including high levels of multigenerational unemployment. The school recognises that full time employment prospects increase the longer an individual remains in formal education (i.e. completing their SACE). Graduates are better equipped to actively participate in a world that is frequently and quickly changing having developed flexibility to learn new skills and respond to future opportunities. As a school, they face the challenge of raising the expectations and aspirations of their learners and engaging families to ensure the aspirations they foster are nurtured and encouraged beyond the school environment.
To address this, the school looked to complement their continued focus on high expectations, quality teaching and learning and positive behaviours with the introduction of new curriculum and pedagogical approaches that support problem solving and critical and creative thinking and integrate student voice and choice in learning. The belief was that if they adopted consistent practices and approaches to raise aspirations, then they would raise aspirations and expectations in the community.
What happened during the project?
Wirreanda SS identified three core focus areas for the project: new curriculum and structures which support creative and critical thinking (CCT) and STEM approaches driven by leaders, staff and students; more opportunities for students to drive learning and engagement through authentic tasks and project; and developing sustainable Industry links and partnerships involving staff and students.
The school’s decision to work towards its STEM and CCT approaches came from the realisation that giving students more STEM subjects in a traditional way (as in Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) was not the way to improve the numbers entering into senior STEM subjects (Physics, Chemistry, Specialist Mathematics).
Rather than thinking of STEM as the integration of four isolated disciplines, they saw it as being about ways of thinking, with a focus on the STEM practices that underpin STEM. Key provocations to developing this mindset were the documentary “Most Likely to Succeed” about High Tech High in California; The National STEM School Education Strategy 2016–2026; and the joint work between SVA & Professor Tom Lowrie “Why STEM practices should be taught across the entire curriculum”. Whilst not totally reliant on NAPLAN and PAT data, it was also clear from these results that students needed more explicit teaching of problem solving, and critical thinking. Furthermore, anecdotal evidence from staff confirmed that students struggled in these areas.
In response, Wirreanda SS implemented a Project Based Learning model in 2017 to teach the following isolated disciplines: English, Humanities and Social Sciences (HASS), Mathematics and Science. In 2018 they subsequently introduced new approaches to Science & Maths through Inquiry Centred Studies (ICS) at Year 9 and 10. Their Year 9 and Year 10 HASS and English curriculum also changed to reflect student voice and choice.
Based on research, they believed that through these models, students would develop the skills that are now essential to compete in innovative futures reliant on effective communication, collaboration and self-management. This approach would also bring together a specialist team of dedicated staff working together across the curriculum areas of English, HASS, Science and Maths to establish engaging opportunities exploring ideas and concepts in the Australian Curriculum in innovative ways.
Curriculum offerings evolved significantly, focusing on personalising student choices and students co-designing learning and assessment. Four specific interdisciplinary courses were offered for selection along with 26 new options provided for students in Years 8-11, to better reflect student interests and enhance the school’s focus on high aspirations.
To engage the wider community in understanding the work they were doing at Wirreanda SS, and improve the outside perception of the school, we have been very strategic in developing our Social Media profile. They have seen a 43% increase in Instagram following, 26% in Twitter following and 22% in Facebook following.
Anecdotally, parents of students have commented about the ‘good name’ that Wirreanda SS has now accrued, and that for many, it is now the school of choice in the community.
What changed for the students?
Student feedback is now embedded in teaching practice, informing planning and curriculum design. This feedback is gathered through school-developed bi-annual surveys around teaching and learning. This data is used to increase teacher skills & capacity. Student feedback through school-developed bi-annual surveys around teaching and learning was used to increase teacher skills & capacity, with results across Years 8-10 indicating an increase in teacher capacity especially in critical thinking skills, problem solving strategies & setting challenging tasks.
The integration of previously isolated disciplines in STEM in practice, reflected in the explicit teaching of capabilities and skills that sit across all subject areas, has improved student learning & development. There has been an increased number of female students choosing STEM offerings in senior school, and increased student engagement with and number of students selecting interdisciplinary options.
The student retention rate (students beginning in Year 8 and staying with the school, and additional enrolments during the year) is a good indicator of how Wirreanda SS are still engaging students in formal education in order to buck the community trend. Their project actions have been directed at middle school students and are now seeing greater retention in these years. This trend of increasing enrolments and better retention rates highlights the impact they are having on student engagement and ￼aspiration, as well as community attitudes towards the school. They have seen enrolments grow from 707 mainstream students in 2016 to 1090 in 2020, and a projected enrolment of 1250 in 2022.
‘I learn skills that are transferable to other subject areas and other experiences outside of school.'
Where to next?
We have continued to develop our curriculum, refine our structures and increase student voice and choice.
Our challenge is to continue raising expectations and aspirations across a bigger school community.
As recipients of $11 million from the State Government to improve our building and facilities, we have planned spaces that will complement our collaborative approach to learning. These spaces will continue to reflect other recent builds (such as our ‘STEM Space’) in being flexible, dynamic spaces that allow for equally flexible and dynamic approaches to learning.
We will continue to focus on how we teach and assess capabilities, as these are fundamental dispositions and attributes that will ensure students are prepared for current and future challenges.
Key insights gained throughout the project for Wirreanda SS were:
- Movement of Staffing Profiles/ Teachers or Leaders Leaving – building capacity to ensure all staff are replaceable and projects don’t depend on individuals; ensuring the journey is well documented and part of the induction process; using PD and Huddles to upskill/refresh new and existing staff.
- Industry Connections cease due to movement in private enterprise or industry having other priorities – links with industry connections should be strategic and planned and need support from DfE Industry Broker. Connections with Local MP’s and Local Council.
- Curriculum and pedagogy changes dependent on specific leadership skills – build capacity in leaders / others interested and skilled in curriculum and pedagogy.
The school identified these preconditions for achieving success in their project:
- Knowing the ‘Why’
- Having a shared understanding of what we wanted learning to look like for our students and why we wanted it to look this way was the key to beginning the journey.
- Having the belief that we could change the way we did things by engaging with a collective/ critical mass that included staff, students and the community was the next step that allowed us to progress.
- Setting up structures that work for all
- By being clear about the ‘Why’ and drawing on our ability to share and engage others with this, allowed us to think differently about what a learning day could look like.
- Structures that foster deep thinking, collaboration and recognise when staff & students work best have enabled us to shape the learning outcomes for students.
- Trust in all
- Strategically developing our HR profile has allowed us to bring on board ‘champions’ – teachers who believe and collectively action our what and how.
- To be able to deliver the types of learning we want to see, we must have trust in these teachers, allow them to make mistakes, grow and learn – and to role model these qualities to students
The importance of collaboration
Q&A with the School Principal Caroline Fishpool
Q: What has made SVA a productive partnership for your school?
The Social Ventures partnership is an incredibly important part of the journey we are on at Wirreanda Secondary School. As a school that provides significant opportunities for all students, we pride ourselves on the quality and variety of the learning environment we provide for all. In an ever increasing world of complexity, the support of Social Ventures and the values they are driven by, align very much to who we are at Wirreanda Secondary School and the drive for change that we are seeking to ensure our students and community can participate in and respond to a changing world. Ensuring every child has the same opportunities in life underpins the work that we all do in disadvantaged schools, and we are fortunate to be partnered with Social Ventures to collectively develop and respond to these challenges.
Our partnership with SVA has opened many doors that otherwise might have remained closed. Our International Experience to North America, which included engagement visits to High Tech High in San Diego, Leading Vancouver Middle Schools Delta Farm School and Norma Rose Point School, innovative Boston and New York schools East Somerville Community School, Brownsville Academy High School and Pace High School was a tremendous learning experience. We were also fortunate to meet with educational leaders Linda Kaser and Judy Halbert (Spirals of Enquiry). This opportunity opened our eyes to new ways of learning and new structures that could better facilitate what we were trying to achieve.
The Connection has also allowed for ongoing work with Rooty Hill High School in western Sydney and Western Port Secondary College on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria. These partnerships have flourished through a shared sense of purpose and a desire to learn from each other. We have shared good practice with both schools in a genuinely reciprocal fashion that allows us to improve the learning outcomes for students. These partnerships are strong and will continue beyond official SVA connection.
Q: Outside of SVA itself, what has been the most productive partnership you’ve developed through your SVA project? Why has it been productive?
The SVA Connection has also allowed for ongoing work with Rooty Hill High School in western Sydney and Western Port Secondary College on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria. These partnerships have flourished through a shared sense of purpose and a desire to learn from each other. We have shared good practice with both schools in a genuinely reciprocal fashion that allows us to improve the learning outcomes for students. These partnerships are strong and will continue beyond official SVA connection.
Contribution of another school to your journey
Wirreanda Secondary College has created a strong connection with Western Port Secondary College, identifying early key similarities in school contexts and learnings. Four inter-school visits have already occurred. Leadership will explore areas they have identified an interest in, and WPSC leaders from key school areas that may benefit will visit Wirreanda in early 2020.