Cambridge: in conversation with Dr Paul Burgis

Initially instituting Cambridge IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education) to Years 9 and 10 in 2014, under the pioneering and trailblazing leadership of current principal, Dr Paul Burgis, PLC Sydney now offers Cambridge courses and assessment to Years 9 to 11.

The Cambridge Assessment International Education courses offer at PLC Sydney have grown significantly over the past ten years, both in popularity and breadth of subject, with the College soon to further introduce a selection of Cambridge International A Level Courses.

Currently PLC Sydney offer learning and assessment in the following Cambridge courses: Computer Science, Global Perspectives, History, Physical Science (to be replaced by Physics and Chemistry in 2024), Biology, Mathematics, Literature and, for AS Level students, General Studies.

Offering A Level teaching and examination is indeed, as Paul describes, a seismic moment. But the PLC Sydney and Cambridge partnership is already full of notable moments: in 2016, a Year 10 student received a Cambridge Outstanding Learner’s Award after being named ‘Top in the World’ for IGCSE Global Perspectives; in 2017, a student received a ‘Top in the World’ award for finishing first in the Physical Sciences exam (in both instances from a student pool involving 11,000 schools worldwide); and in 2020, a Year 12 student achieved three A Levels (A*, A*, A) in her Cambridge exams (equivalent to 99.9+). She is now studying Computer Science and Philosophy at the University of Oxford. There is also a student currently completing her A Levels in Further Maths and Computer Science who will follow in those footsteps and already has an offer from Oxford. It is to the impact of this pupil success and the transformative potential of the current courses offered that our interview returns.

Cambridge is better known by overseas universities than the HSC and therefore this makes it an easier pathway for students who wish to study internationally.

Dr Paul Burgis, Principal PLC Sydney

Dr Paul Burgis’ background is in teaching History and English. He has actively studied, researched and taught across the globe, as well as chaired accreditation and academic committees, and directed Master’s programmes. In 2001, he received the Norman Baker Award for Educational Achievement for ‘Outstanding Educational Practice’. During his time at PLC Sydney, Paul has overseen the building of the College’s new Junior School, the development and full-school implementation of specific learning virtues, the undertaking of Cambridge IGCSE courses and the growth in student number from 1175 to over 1450 currently.

In conversation with Dr Burgis, we explore the how and why PLC Sydney has introduced Cambridge (CAIE), its impact and successes, and hope to discover a little about Paul himself along the way.

  • Why did PLC Sydney, under your leadership, decide to initially offer Cambridge Assessment International Education courses and exams to students in Years 9 and 11?

I taught Cambridge IGCSE and International A Level courses in Zimbabwe in the 1990s. I noticed the way that they assisted students with very few resources apply their abilities and achieve success. In the UK, later, our daughter sat Cambridge courses and improved her Science results. The courses also allow teachers some flexibility about how and what they teach to tailor the courses for their region. In thinking about a second certificate to offer alongside the HSC [New South Wales Education Standards Authority courses], Cambridge was therefore an obvious choice. And when we instituted Cambridge IGCSE, we noted a significant improvement in students’ results in courses including Science and Mathematics. We are therefore very happy with this choice.

  • You mention the availability and use of the HSC – can you tell us what the pathway looks like for HSC students who wish to study internationally? And does the Cambridge offer provide a more convenient alternative to this?

The HSC does provide a good pathway. However, as Cambridge is better known by overseas universities that the HSC, it makes it an easier pathway for students who wish to study internationally. .

  • How did you find the initial uptake of the Cambridge options? Was their availability an offer which pupils found immediately attractive? Did parents?

Initially, we had only 15-20 students selecting one Cambridge elective, across Years 9 and 11. Now, however, almost all 340 students across these years do at least one Cambridge elective, with quite a few doing three. The uptake was immediate and the number of candidates have continued to grow.

  • Why are you continuing to grow Cambridge Courses on offer in your school?

In the shorter term, we will be offering a limited range of Cambridge International A Levels in 2024, before offering a full range in 2025. This venture into A Level provision is a significant point in the school’s history.

  • Has the evidential standout success of pupils undertaking Cambridge courses increased fellow pupil interest and participation?

We have had a few of these awards and they have all been very well received. Really, there is already interest from our students and parents, so much so that they are requesting even more subject choices. We are also fielding many enquiries from outside the school. These come from private students looking to take the examinations, students wanting to enrol because of our Cambridge Courses and other schools in New South Wales interested in offering Cambridge in their schools.

At our school we hold that the purpose of an education is to learn to love.

Dr Paul Burgis
  • What impact and responsibility do subjects such as History and Global Perspectives have in shaping societies and in forming mindsets? How have these subjects, or the teaching of them, changed in response to recent cultural movements (such as the increasing awareness of equality, diversity, inclusion and belonging, and considerations of climate change and sustainability?

Schools could fall into a trap if they allow the zeitgeist to shape their curriculum offering. The current set of issues is in part shaped by human survival and equity, and there is also an emphasis on human autonomy in western societies. This emphasis on ‘my own preferences’ being the way forward for everyone is problematic. It seems to be to lead to ‘coercing others and seeking to limit them coercing me’. Much like the Roman Empire, the zeitgeist issues are largely imagined to be the remit of the powerful within the west. We can build a much better understanding of the issues affecting us today if we don’t react to the political activists on both sides of the spectrum, but rather develop a deep and broad historical, philosophical and theological understanding of how ideas develop. Further, in the Post-Enlightenment world, learning has been impacted negatively by the separation that is imagined between the subject and the object. Empiricism is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master. At our school we hold that the purpose of an education is to learn to love. We seek to not scapegoat people on either side of politics. Much of the current political activism maintains a commitment to scapegoating. We seek to build understanding. We support and encourage sustainable and intelligent action.

  • Paul, you yourself have taught in many distinct regions of the world and you are described as having ‘strong global interests’. In your experience, would you say that the educational challenges that you have witnessed are similar and translate across populations? And, if so, do Cambridge courses and study options help militate or mitigate these?

I think Cambridge Mathematics, Science and History translate well. There are areas in English where Cambridge would gain from the NESA [New South Wales Education Standards Authority] courses. Cambridge courses are quite secure. They allow students to structure their learning. In Science, Mathematics and History they extend thought.

Paul’s career in education really has been a testament to this intention of intelligent action. He is a strong believer that education should have both depth and rigour as well as breadth and engagement. His dedication extends to examining education programmes, to teaching effective business communication to adults, and to delivering professional learning for leaders. In trying to learn more about him holistically, however, one must equally be attuned to his teaching past, his passion for history, philosophy, theology and poetry, as well as his keen eye for and enjoyment of avian photography.

Dr Paul Burgis

PhD (UNSW), MEd, BEd, Dip Tch (Eng/His-sec), Dip Div/Miss

Dr Paul Burgis is the current Principal of the Presbyterian Ladies College, Sydney. Paul is married and has three daughters and lives in Drummoyne, Sydney. In his leisure time he enjoys reading history, theology, philosophy and poetry, supporting the Cronulla Sharks and wild bird photography. He worships with his family at Drummoyne Presbyterian Church.