Dear PLC Sydney Community

Connections_Paul Burgis_vertical

Here is a riddle: effective communities are ‘ordered’ and ‘disordered’ simultaneously.

‘Order’ creates security and fairness, transparency and inclusion.

‘Disorder’ creates flexibility and nimbleness, responsiveness and individual care.

At PLC Sydney, for example, we have order in the structure of lessons and co-curricular activities, the easy operation of calendars and due dates, and the rhythm of practices and performances.

The purposes of this type of order are to: create clear expectations, enable successful and predictable functioning, and to embed a peaceful ‘rule of law’. In short, to create a secure social environment where each person knows where they should be and what they should be doing.

A second type of order revolves around fairness. In schools this relates to access to learning and to fair assessment systems. We place students in classes where they can hopefully flourish and we hold assessments/examinations where each person has a fair chance to do their best. Class placements are based on real marks and not personal lobbying.

A third type of order relates to communication. We set up structures for communication so that we don’t overwhelm some members of the community and exclude others.

In a school like PLC Sydney our discussions at Executive often connect with these principles: security and fairness, transparency and inclusion. In Christian terms they relate to how we see human beings – as free agents who have the capacity and sometimes the will to act only in their self-interest but who benefit immensely from ordered cooperation.

Yet we also need ‘disorder’. We need to be able to respond effectively to a need, in the moment. We need to be able to listen and to be flexible. We need to be able to assist the ill student, or help the family in crisis. We need to make allowances for individual students when they have a real need. We need to actually care how each person finds their way through our institution.

At a structural level, we need to be able to change practice in order to respond to a shift in technology, and to ensure we are nimble when society shifts its focus. Schools have their own Taxi-driver versus Uber issues and we need to be ready for them.

Now to the nitty-gritty. I give two real world examples: I am sure you can think of more.

Our community will be stronger if we have an agreed understanding of what is ordered and what is flexible.

For example, the parent who claims that their daughter should be in a particular class could be arguing for flexibility when s/he should in my view be arguing for order. The school needs to consider that another child would need to leave a class for the parent’s wish to be fulfilled. If we were ‘flexible’ in this area in the way that is sometimes requested, we could be in the dangerous position of acting for one child by acting against another child’s well-being. The only proper response is to base the decision on established performance. In other words, on order. This is an area of the College where we need to stick closely to system that is established. Class placements are based on objective tests which everyone completes. It would not be fair of me to move a child from one class to another if the data doesn’t back up the decision. In such circumstances I advise the parents to take the ‘long-view’, and request them to seek to encourage the child to keep striving. I think we are all seeking to assist our children to grow stronger when disappointments visit us – as they inevitably will.

On the other side of the coin, I respect greatly the efforts by year leaders to be flexible when communicating with families. Thank you to the many families who have passed on compliments about how positively they have been welcomed or received into the new year by their year director. We want our year directors to be responsive. As an aside, I do ask that requests, unless urgent, emerging on a Friday evening be held over until Monday morning. I know our year directors do give quick responses on the weekend, and they have not asked me to write this note. As the principal I want to ensure that they are sustained so that they can look after your daughters very well throughout the year and I think the notion of being ‘on call’ puts this at risk. My main point at this time, however, is that in the area of student well-being we are very proud of our individual care and responsiveness.

I leave you with a final thought – we are always trying to return to a sense of order. When we consider an individual circumstance or an exception we will be seeking to work out how we can build this into our school framework. There was a time, for example, when schools did not make allowances for student with disabilities in examinations. It became clear that this was unjust, so, originally, exceptions were made. Today there is an established framework and we rarely need to work outside of it.

This system of iterative thinking based on principles should give confidence to each parent that we are seeking to act for the good of each child. I thank you for your support in this endeavour.

Dr Paul Burgis