School transformation: “it’s about getting the right people on the bus”September 2017
JUDE BARBACK talks to Mana College principal John Murdoch about what it takes to turn a school around.
John Murdoch is a name that is becoming well-known in education circles, thanks to his part in leading a transformation at Mana College in Porirua. Just don’t tell him that – one of Murdoch’s biggest bugbears is the media’s tendency to paint “the hero’s journey” and oversimplify the complex process of change by crediting it to one person.
You can’t blame the media really. Murdoch led an inspiring turn-around at Taita College in Lower Hutt before taking on the principal’s role at Mana College last year. He was a first-time principal when he arrived at Taita in 2009.
“Looking back now, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing,” he reflects.
He must have got something right, however, as the NCEA pass rates doubled during his six-year tenure at Taita.
He concedes, somewhat reluctantly, that his 25 years of secondary school experience may have had something to do with it. He’s brought his own ideas to the table.
Murdoch says that while the learnings, values and experience from Taita have been useful during his time so far at Mana, the two schools faced quite different challenges that required different approaches.
“At Taita we ate the animal from the inside,” he says. “The culture was poor; the school had a big problem with engagement and attendance.”
He says these aspects had to be tackled first before embarking on a learning vision for the school.
By contrast, at Mana the culture wasn’t the main problem. In the 1970s the high school had around 1,000 students, but in recent years the roll had dwindled to around 300.
“The school was in statutory management; the middle class was leaving in its droves. The priority was gaining the confidence of the local community.”
So with Mana, he started with the community and “ate the animal from the outside”. As a result, things are starting to look up for the school. The roll is now up to 370 and growing. And the Ministry of Education recently announced a $9 million redevelopment for the school.
Both approaches boiled down to getting the learning vision right.
The key is listening to what students really want, says Murdoch. And what has he gleaned from talking to students?
“There isn’t a kid who doesn’t want to do well. Adults are the problem. And school is boring,” he lists.
It’s about listening to what kids want to get out school, and building their school experience around it, says Murdoch.
At Taita, this meant turning extracurricular activities into curricular activities.
“I think there were more students at the school at 3.30pm than during the school day,” he says wryly. “They loved the EOTC stuff. They loved cultural and sporting activities. They even loved homework club. So we went about incorporating this stuff into the school day, into the curriculum, so there was no such thing as extracurricular.”
The curriculum began to align more with what students actually wanted to learn about. The school began offering courses that really lead somewhere. These changes were accompanied with high expectations of the students, says Murdoch.
“If you can’t get it right for the most disadvantaged kids, and give them a sense of agency, you haven’t a hope.”
At Mana College, they’ve set up learning advisories; each advisory comprises 12 students to one teacher. Each student has a learning plan which informs their timetable. This allows the school to truly achieve personalised, student-centred learning.
Murdoch stresses that this sort of learning vision wouldn’t be possible without the Mana community on-side.
“I think intelligence as a collective is not really well considered,” he muses. He believes this is demonstrated well in tikanga Māori.
Before taking the reins at Mana, he was told the school and the local iwi don’t get on. He’s since discovered this to be a misconception.
“The iwi are fantastic.”
Having said that, Murdoch says it probably isn’t the best time to be part of a Community of Learning.
“It isn’t entirely straightforward for the school to work collaboratively as a group when we are undergoing such transformation.”
He speaks highly of Mana’s board of trustees who collectively have opened doors to all sorts of networks for the school.
“The board is passionate about kids attending their local school.”
One group that isn’t always easy to convert to new ways of thinking is the teaching staff.
“The most resistance comes from teachers – that’s always the challenge,” says Murdoch.
While the students and the community are always open to new systems and ideas, teachers can be reluctant to embrace change. He puts this down to the pressures of an increased workload and a shift away from their locus of control.
As such, he anticipates around 45 per cent staff turnover in the first 18 months. If they can’t buy in to the learning vision, they’re better off somewhere else.
It’s a rather cut-throat admission, but it seems Murdoch would go to just about any length to see his students flourish.
“As Jim Collins said, it’s about getting the right people on the bus.”
Murdoch has a mild Scottish accent that broadens as he talks about his heritage. He came to New Zealand in his teens. One grandfather was a headmaster, like him; the other a weaver.
“As I get older, I realise I’m actually more like my grandfather who was a weaver,” he says.
It’s his father he probably emulates the most – Dr Campbell Murdoch has played a major role in transforming general practice and improving access to health services, and continues to make a difference.
Like father, like son – John Murdoch says he can’t ever envisage a day he will take a cushy principal’s position at a school that isn’t in need of transformation.
“It’s just not me,” he says.
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