When Canberra’s newest public school opens its doors on Monday, it will also open a window into the future of education in the capital.
Gone are the days of a teacher and a blackboard facing down neat rows of desks. At Margaret Hendry School in Canberra's north, there are no classrooms or year levels. Teachers are known as learning coaches and work in teams of six to look after a mixed age “learning community” of up to 150 children.
A huge open-plan building, full of nooks, couches and adaptable studios with sliding glass doors, will house kids from kindergarten age through to year 6.
Inaugural principal Kate Woods gave The Canberra Times an exclusive first look at the new Taylor campus, as construction crews laid down the finishing touches for the school’s first wave of 242 students.
“We keep getting more enrolments every day as people hear about us,” Ms Woods said.
“We’ll group them in K-2 and 3-6 communities, but that’s mostly for admin reasons. This isn’t the old factory model any more. This is the education revolution."
The school, which cost $34 million to build, is the first designed according to the ACT government's new school construction brief. By next year, it’s expected to become Canberra’s first carbon neutral campus, running entirely on renewable energy, and feedback from its staff and students will shape future builds in the territory, including a new K-10 campus in the growing Molongo Valley due to begin late this year.
David Matthews of the education directorate said the school was a showcase for its new 10-year education strategy, drawing on best practice from around the world.
“We want people to be able to look to Margaret Hendry and get a sense of what the future of education might look like,” Mr Matthews said.
“We will expect that to have a flow on effect to other parts of the system ... There’s a lot of excitement about this ... and a lot of this work [and] pedagogy is already happening in other ACT public schools."
At Margaret Hendry, students will take charge of their learning through a choose your own adventure style, setting goals, launching projects and uploading evidence when they believe they have mastered a new skill.
“They’ll be conferencing with staff all the time on their progress and staff will be conferencing together, [designing] a learning plan for each individual student,” Ms Woods said.
The former Isabella Plains principal acknowledges it's a radically different way of teaching, and much of early staff training had been spent on "unlearning" old models.
"In the mornings here, it'll be all hands on deck, whether that's the principal or the PE teacher," Ms Woods said. Students might be learning as a whole school, or building robots in a more traditional class size, or catching up with an older student to work on a project.
Ms Woods said she had experienced the difference a personalised approach could make firsthand during her own time in Canberra public schools.
“I was a naughty student ... but in year 6, I had a teacher who, rather than look at my disruptive history, looked at why and figured out that I was actually quite clever and got me into extension groups," she said.
"I always thought I'd love to be that person for someone else."
Casey mother Danni Gifford said she was excited to send her four-year-old twins Scout and Saxon off for their first day at Margaret Hendry, won over by the school's non-traditional philosophy.
"Scout is so ready to go to school, she's focused, but I was worried Saxon might need a bit more engagement," she said.
The family have already spent more than half a dozen afternoons exploring the campus under construction, particularly the pre-school wing where the twins will be starting on Monday. Letters from "learning coaches" have also been sent home to incoming students.
"My two are so excited, they keep asking when they are going to school," Ms Gifford said.
The school's multi-age approach is reflected in recommendations from the latest Gonski report and a growing global movement in the sector to personalise learning, including at Templestowe and Mount Alexander public schools in Melbourne and the newly-opened Lindfield Learning Village in Sydney.
But, while Margaret Hendry hopes to eventually do away with all age groupings, Mr Matthews said the government was not looking to scrap year levels entirely in public schools.
“That’s very much an issue for the principal to work out,” he said.
“There’s already a lot of flexibility around how different age groups are taught ... but they tend to go through in one age cohort.”
Though some in the sector, including Australia's chief scientist Alan Finkel, are pushing for renewed focus on fundamentals like maths and science in classrooms, ACT public schools are focusing on inquiry-based learning, with students encouraged to explore areas of interest. The approach, which has been compared to the Montessori method, has drawn criticism from some academics who remain skeptical of its academic results, but Ms Woods said all learning would still be grounded in the basics.
"From the perspective of the ACT government, it's not an either or thing," Mr Matthews said.
"We certainly see the importance of literacy and numeracy ... but also encouraging children to learn to collaborate, to develop the skills they're going to need for the future workforce."
The school was named by the community in honour of landscape architect Margaret Hendry OAM, whose designs helped shape Canberra.
Final construction on two adjoining playing fields for both school and community use will wrap up in mid-March.
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