What makes schools great?

Mrs Marise McConaghy, Deputy Principal (Staff)

French aristocrat, writer, poet and pioneering aviator, Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince (1943), ostensibly a children’s book, makes profound observations about human relationships, which are, of course, the foundation of a healthy school culture. He captures something we all instinctively know with simple and direct words: ‘That which is essential is invisible to the human eye.’ Truth, love, trust, loyalty and understanding are essential in good relationships and they are fundamental characteristics in schools where great things happen.


This year is the twenty-fifth I have worked at Girls Grammar — most of that time in a leadership capacity. Why stay so long in one place and still be compelled and energised by the mission — to the extent of waking up in the middle of the night to jot down seemingly brilliant ideas for the School or revelations on how to sort out one of the many conundrums? Or sitting on a beach on holiday and texting the boss with the ideas that one can only imagine while staring at the sea with time to ponder? Well, it is the same for me as for other staff here. We just love this place that is Girls Grammar and what it stands for — learning — and we feel a sense of great privilege, still excited and terribly responsible to be part of the heritage. The thinking for the School can be constant, particularly in challenging times or when strategically designing. The weighty responsibility for the nurturing and wellbeing of 1170 girls and a large staff is ever-present; and envisioning and navigating the School into the future requires imagination, courage and stealth. But what could be finer or more engaging work than that of educating our Grammar girls to be women of the future? I also feel profoundly grateful to have met, worked with and learned from, so many fascinating people on a daily basis as part of a 138-year-old tradition. This ability for the School to elicit such dedicated, whole-hearted service from so many — staff, parents, students and Old Girls alike — contributes to its greatness and this in turn enriches all those who are part of the enterprise.

Literature on good schools defines culture as the context in which everything else takes place. This School has an exceptionally strong culture and I believe, as do many, that it is a great school. One of the things I have learned about the stewardship and development of an exceptional learning culture is the importance of understanding the extent to which we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before. Acknowledgement and respect for this, in the narrative that is Girls Grammar life, provides the guidance and wisdom to manage the way forward. Every great organisation is characterised by dual actions — to preserve the core and to stimulate progress.


The great paradox of change is that the organisations that best adapt to a changing world know what should not change. They have a fixed anchor of guiding principles around which they can more easily change everything else; there is an understanding of the difference between what is sacred and what is not, between ‘what we stand for’ and ‘how we do things’. People involved in Girls Grammar share a common purpose and shared values which establish a connection that endures beyond each person’s formal activity with the organisation. It seems to me that this enduring relationship is becoming stronger and transcends active participation, whether as a student, parent or staff member.

‘Once a Grammar girl, always a Grammar girl’ or ‘You can take the girl out of Grammar, but you can’t take Grammar out of the girl’ as the sayings go. One might ponder if this is because there is such a strong fundamental need for people to share things that give their lives and work meaning, and that schools like ours represent something that people want to remain a part of. This need for connection to others — sharing with them experiences, beliefs and aspirations to form a common bond — is perhaps more important now than any time in the past as people seek to be part of something noble and larger than the individual.

This School has created and perpetuated an intentional culture shaped by the adults, grounded in the universal values of honesty and caring, and relentlessly orientated towards achievement. Dedicated educators, over decades, have contributed to shaping a culture that demands and supports ethical virtue and citizenship, while providing an instructional environment that demands and supports best academic effort through challenging work and high expectations. Performance and ethical excellence are born from a culture. When our students enter our culture, which demands and supports quality work and moral character, they tend to work to fit in so that the virtuous ethic becomes their norm. Nil sine labore. Nothing without hard work. Grammar girls work hard at all they do — academic achievement, relationships, responsible social behaviour, sport, and developing their own good character. This happens for our staff also; people develop wonderfully here because the culture is so authentically and powerfully about learning and teaching that everyone learns and develops. It is impossible not to, once you enter the world of Girls Grammar. And of course, it is obvious that teachers make schools great. Our School is full of passionate teachers so crazy about the subjects they teach that anyone would want to be in their classrooms. The Mathematics, Chemistry and Physics teachers have almost persuaded me as to the beauty of their subjects; and the Music teachers have finally convinced me that everyone can play music and sing — even me.

And I have learned, too, over the years that the School ‘mood’ needs to be continually watched over and managed. The girls need to be ‘horse whispered’, as we used to call it, and the staff need to be cared for as sometimes they work too hard and stress levels escalate. So, too, with the girls.

That is why good schools always make sure that the students have regular bouts of fun. They work hard and can be very earnest, but that needs to be balanced with play, physical activity, and, sometimes, just being silly. They are, after all, still very young. How the girls are wearing the School uniform, the mood of an assembly, how happily they greet you, how easily or not they can be pulled into line, the balance of their compliance and their subversion, their respectfulness or disinterest, their introversion and extroversion, the presence of individuality, tolerance of difference, acceptance and belonging in groups, the number and kind of relational tensions, the agency of peer pressure, the level of littering and property lost — all are indicators of the mood or health of the organisation and require some level of appropriate response from adults in order to keep the girls emotionally safe and cared for — and to protect what we have deemed culturally precious. This level of wisdom and constant reflection keeps a mature school enduringly steady and strong to its mission through currents of change and adolescent chaos. The careful management of rate of change and its impact together with strategic and well-timed disruption where necessary keeps the place vibrant, exciting, and moving forward — but also contained, so that people feel safe and the changes are not superficial. By doing this, trust is established as people feel cared for and respected. This in turn ensures a strong level of engagement and loyalty.


I have always thought great schools nurture eccentric personalities and I was delighted to read the chapter entitled ‘Being Eccentric’ in Professor Erica McWilliam’s Educating Girls (2013). I recall a much-loved, very amusing English teacher occasionally wearing her dress back-to-front and odd shoes while absorbed in teaching existential poetry, Shakespeare or feminism in her various classrooms, and a very brilliant mathematics teacher — who inspired so many hundreds of girls — but seemed unable to follow the numbers on a clock. Or the previous Deputy who, when it was fashionable for boys to ‘streak’ through the School, would say huffily that she knew from the quality of the girls’ squeals when they (usually they came in multiples) were on the premises. (The older girls’ derogatory comments have since frightened them off.) Miss Lilley (Headmistress 1925–1952)) always had a small cushion for her small dog, Geordie, near the lectern when she spoke on assembly, but perhaps nothing compares to Headmistress Wilkinson’s (1900–12) presence in assembly in her long black taffeta dress with a coloured parrot resting on one shoulder. Perhaps if I stay here long enough, I may grow to be equally eccentric and start to run School assemblies so too adorned.

An eccentric or unorthodox approach to something opens up new ways of thinking and it is particularly ironic that, at a time when creativity, innovation, thinking outside the box and liveliness are highly praised, educational reform pushes teachers and students towards a norm of sameness. It seems these days that the drivers are proceduralists who most value conformity, uniformity and ticking boxes. A kind of smoothing down of the human persona seems to be occurring with a growing wariness about anything that cannot be safely risk managed, put in a box, or documented as a policy.

I also believe great schools listen carefully to feedback, particularly from parents. No organisation or individual is perfect. I have been taught that there is something to learn from each complaint that is made and every compliment given. By listening carefully and responding appropriately, the performance of the School can be continually strengthened and the needs of our girls and their families more deeply understood. Again, it is important for us to remain confident, and not to be defensive, if the message is negative. Also, I have come to understand the pressure some families are under and that an email sent late at night from an exhausted household after a family meltdown is not the end of the world; it just shows the humanity that we all share.

I will conclude — perhaps eccentrically — with these lines from Kathleen Noonan’s recent article (2013) inspired by the poem ‘Things I Didn’t Know I Loved’ by Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet. Noonan’s reflections ground us to the most important thing that connects us all — the wellbeing of our young people as they venture into life:

I didn’t know I loved being woken up at midnight or one when a daughter returns home safe from a night out, down in the valley jungle. I have always hated having my sleep broken. So, who would have thought the slam of the cab door and the sound of clomping high wedges on the front steps would make taut shoulders drop and the heart heave?


Collins, J. (1999). And the walls came tumbling down. Retrieved November 12, 2013, from www.jimcollins.com/article_topics/articles/and-the-walls.html

De Saint-Exupery, A. (1943). The little prince. New York: Mammoth.

McWilliam, E. (2013). Educating girls. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Noonan, K. (2013, November 2). Last word. The Courier-Mail, p. 40.

Senechal, D. (2011, November 26). The need for eccentricity in education. Retrieved November 14, 2013, from https://dianasenechal.wordpress.com/2011/11/26/the-need-for-eccentricity-in-education/


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