Flying the flag proudly for public education

A school for students with specific needs has been named the most outstanding educator at the Australian Education Awards. Linda Doherty reports.

People posing for a photo with a trophy. People posing for a photo with a trophy.
Image: Cook School staff at the awards, from left, Rebecca Fisher, Lisa Grech, Heidi Jarvis, Tracey Gocher, principal Dave Hobson, Martine Winn, Claudia Vera, Adrian Moodley, and Tracey Read.

Cook School principal Dave Hobson had just loosened his tie after accepting an award for Special Education School of the Year when he and his colleagues were called up to the stage again.

His school in Sydney’s south had won the top honour as Education Perfect Australian School of the Year ahead of mainstream public and private primary and secondary schools.

“We were in complete shock but really thrilled to be flying the flag for public education, and also to be recognised for the innovative and essential work we do in specialist school settings,” Mr Hobson said.

Berry Public School was also honoured for the best student wellbeing program in the country at the awards ceremony in Sydney on 11 August. 

Twenty-five government educators and schools were finalists in the awards run by ‘The Educator’ (see the list of finalists below).

The Director, Educational Leadership for Woronora Principal Network Jennifer French said Cook School, on Dharawal Country, was a leader in inclusive education, with a strong focus on evidence-based research and innovation.

“The school has very high expectations of staff and students and is committed to providing the full breadth of the curriculum,” she said. “The staff thoroughly deserve this award.”

The school has up to 77 students from Kindergarten to Year 12 and is at the forefront of trauma-informed education for children with complex support needs, including diagnosed mental health conditions, emotional disturbances and behavioural difficulties.

Mr Hobson said Cook School was honoured to be a finalist in the Special Education School of the Year category along with two other NSW Department of Education schools for specific purposes, Anson Street School in Orange and Carenne School in Bathurst.

“Public education does the heavy lifting in the special education space and our specialist work is not always well understood in the wider community,” he said.

“Our students are some of the most vulnerable in the education system and they deserve the very best we have to offer.”

Mr Hobson said his staff were particularly proud of the academic gains being made at the school.

As an early adopter school for the K-2 curriculum, Mr Hobson said there had been clear growth in student learning since the wider adoption of decodable text and explicit phonics teaching.

“We are really seeing the results for our young kids, with the more systematic structure of the new K-2 curriculum,” he said.

“With some students we've seen two to three years’ growth in 12 months.”

Last year, Cook School opened the Year 7 to 12 Acacia Secondary Campus in Loftus. The campus now educates 21 students – most of whom started attending school for the first time in 12 months.

Students have an individualised curriculum in their areas of interest in an alternate learning and credentialled pathway through Big Picture Education, which has seen a steady rise in attendance. Cook School is the first SSP in NSW to pilot the Big Picture Education learning program.

People posing with a trophy. People posing with a trophy.
Image: Berry Public School executive staff members at the awards, from left, Jo Jennings, Peter Burney, principal Bob Willetts, Brooke Henning, Jessy Brewin and Adam Simpson.

Ripple effect on wellbeing

Berry Public School has a fundamental belief that students’ health and wellbeing underpins their learning performance, and a school-community approach is required for meaningful impact.  

Last year the school received an excellence award at the Australian Education Awards and this year it won the category for the best student wellbeing program in Australia.

Principal Bob Willetts said it was a wonderful recognition of the Berry Public School team and its partners in the Living Ripples Program, including the Phillips Foundation, and the Western Sydney University Young and Resilient Research Centre. 

“We want our students to feel the warm embrace of wraparound support, inclusion, a sense of belonging, and a strong voice in their learning and wellbeing,” Mr Willetts said.

“We strive to excel in student wellbeing by actively responding to data and feedback, and working collaboratively with partners to refine existing initiatives, as well as implement new programs.”

Recent school initiatives include enhanced dance and drama programs for high potential and gifted students; The Berry Way Student Podcast; a First Nations’ language and culture program with Aboriginal community organisation Gadhungal Murring; and a natural play ropes course in response to student feedback.

Data gathered from daily student check-ins creates a pulse check of the wellbeing and resilience of students, allowing teachers to identify individual student needs and provide personalised interventions.

The school was extensively involved in the co-design of the Living Ripples Program, founded by philanthropists Liz and Anthony Phillips. It was the first school in Australia to implement the initiative, which aims to improve children’s resilience and self-confidence.

Berry Public School is now the regional hub for a Living Ripples community of practice, sharing programs and contributing to research with 11 other public primary schools to improve student health, wellbeing and resilience.

Mr Willetts said the student wellbeing program had improved student learning outcomes, with Berry Public School students consistently performing well above the state average in NAPLAN reading and numeracy.

NSW public education finalists

  • Department Head of the Year: Lauren Ward, Dubbo College South Campus.
  • NRL School Ambassador Program Primary School Principal of the Year - Government: Angela-Jane Gay, Young North Public School; Duncan Adams, Telegraph Point Public School; Kaylah Gray, Krambach Public School; Matthew Royan, Chatham Public School; Megan Manson, Canobolas Public School.
  • Primary School Teacher of the Year: Lauryn Fitton, Governor Philip King Public School.
  • A Team Tuition School Principal of the Year – Government: Meaghan Cook, Hastings Secondary College; Tracey Rapson, Hunter River Community School.
  • Secondary School Teacher of the Year: Sharon Davis, Maitland Grossman High School.
  • Ideagen Complispace Best First Nations Program: Briar Road Public School; Gorokan High School.
  • Best Student Wellbeing Program: Asquith Girls High School; Berry Public School.
  • AFL Schools Primary School of the Year: Cabramatta Public School; Cessnock East Public School; Governor Philip King Public School; Tallimba Public School; Wyalong Public School; Yates Avenue Public School.
  • Secondary School of the Year: Cabramatta High School; Canterbury Boys High School.
  • Special Education School of the Year: Anson Street School; Carenne School for Specific Purposes; Cook School.
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