Educating for purpose

Mrs Anna Owen, Deputy Principal

Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Dr Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, appeals for a movement that will compete directly with the deleterious effects of the ‘leadership’ being provided by some current heads of countries and regions. He describes many present global leaders very frankly as ‘bullies, deceivers [and] selfish cowards’, and as ‘too busy with themselves’, rather than being focused on their responsibilities as world leaders.

Against this poverty of leadership, Al Hussein asserts the power of the foot soldier, or ‘grassroots leadership’. He provides examples of acts of grassroots courage from around the world that not only defend local communities, but also help solve broader social issues. He implores all of us to seek to coordinate this local work on a worldwide stage. His vision: take the small-scale organisations and voices protecting human rights around the world to create an effective, coordinated, focused, human rights movement with the backing of business leaders of purpose-driven organisations. When I reflected on this, I saw that our School—and every school—is just such a ‘small-scale organisation’, and that we are very much purpose-driven.

We are, and I say this without any sense of elitism or hubris, creating the leaders of tomorrow. To do this, we must look to the strengths and weaknesses of our current global leaders, and seek to learn from their successes and failures to support the development of the next generation of leaders. So, how should schools react to this outbreak of what Al Hussein refers to as ‘mediocre leadership’—and to what principles should schools hold fast?

The guiding principles of Brisbane Girls Grammar School’s Strategic Design 2016-2019 articulate the contexts in which our girls, during a six-year journey, meet, are challenged by, and hone and apply the qualities that create great leaders. Grammar girls are encouraged to become leaders, ethically and empathetically making decisions and judgements that take direct action against injustice.

Is Al Hussein’s peaceful call-to-arms foolishly brave or at worst inconceivable, or is it brilliantly deliberate? As we near the 10th anniversary of the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, two overarching goals remain: ‘Australian Schooling promotes equity and excellence’; and ‘All young Australians become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens’. However, in the past ten years, as we charge ever deeper into postmodernity, schools are facing the pressures of digital disruption, changing expectations from families and communities, an unquestioning emphasis on students’ academic performance on tests like NAPLAN and PISA, and a tendency to ensure every gap in a young person’s schedule is filled.

These changes grab a lot of attention, both in the generalist media and in the specialist world of teaching. If we are going to produce Al Hussein’s grassroots leaders, we need to pay attention to the landscape in which said grass is growing. We need to educate students to manage the increase in information to which they have access, and are required to absorb to complete even the smallest task. Ironically, while there appears to be more information accessible to students than ever before, there is also a concerning shift away from deep, reflective and ethical analysis to  alarmist, immediate and shallow responses. As we are all too keenly aware, some of our current leaders are all too prone to these reactive (and sometimes reactionary) traits.

It is a slightly unorthodox notion, but perhaps schools should not react to societal changes, changing to accommodate digital expansion and anxiety about the nature of employment. Slow thinking, deep learning, critical thinking and reasoned decision-making are enduring lessons, applicable to careers in the technology field as well as academia, and beyond. In a recent opinion piece, Professor Judith Bessant addressed the popular complaint that ‘employers cannot find graduates with the appropriate skills’. The tendency of governments and educational institutions to adapt their offerings to be ‘responsive to the needs of business’, she argues, misses the point, and what is really required, is ‘intelligent and courageous leadership’ (Bessant, 2018). Hear, hear.

Educational institutions with strong leadership and integrity of intent and purpose will have the greatest impact at the grassroots level because this is the route to global change and influence. Schools as organisations need to respond and remain responsive, but continue to take time to understand the need for real change, versus perceived change, and if the evidence dictates, continue to do what they know they do well.


Barr et al. (2008), Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, Carlton, Australia: Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs.

Bessant et al. (2018, September 29). The future of work will not be full-time. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from

Brisbane Girls Grammar School. (2016). Brisbane Girls Grammar School Strategic Design (2016-2019). Brisbane, Australia.

Al Hussein, Z.R (2018, August 30). Grassroots leaders provide the best hope to a troubled world. The Economist. Retrieved from