Even teachers with 30 years experience felt threatened when Box Hill senior secondary college introduced six-monthly surveys to test students'
opinions of staff performance. "Half were really worried," says the principal, Wayne Craig. "One teacher actually took the survey home and talked to his wife about it. He said: 'I don't try to be Mr Popularity.' " The surveys, which staff administer on their own classes, are part of an extraordinary drive to transform this Melbourne school by making it responsive to pupils' needs. Students are asked to rate teachers on 18 criteria, such as whether they create a positive atmosphere in class, whether they offer constructive feedback on homework and correct it promptly.
"It's taking a risk to get kids to comment on the quality of teaching," says Craig. "You have to build up trust first, but it's part of the transformation." Most feedback was overwhelmingly positive and enabled staff to gauge whether there were areas they could improve on.
The system is complemented by pupils' monthly evaluations of their own performance, with plans to make them accessible to them, their parents and teachers on a password-protected digital portfolio within an hour. The pupils have to identify what they are doing well and what they have to improve. If parents have queries, video-conferencing technology is used to hold meetings with teachers and the child without either having to come into school. Box Hill is also pushing pupil responsibility to new limits by training some students to interview prospective teachers as part of the selection process.
Asking pupils for their views in this way was one among many ideas put before 500 school leaders from a scattering of countries - including 200 from Britain - on study visits while attending an iNet conference in July in Melbourne.
The international network was set up in May 2003 to transform schooling and raise achievement by sharing the best ideas from around the world. It includes all 2,393 schools affiliated to the Specialist Schools Trust in England, 88 schools in Australia and a 52 from South Africa, Hong Kong, Chile and Peru. There are plans to take in schools from Canada, China and the US.
iNet organises international research projects, video debates, and leadership programmes, and is developing a chair of international leadership, sponsored by HSBC, which will be shared between a number of universities around the world. There will also be a masters in international leadership, with modules on education in other countries.
Russell Moon, iNet's head, says the idea is to create world class schools of the future by looking at what innovative schools are doing today. "You don't have to re-invent the wheel, you can innovate by taking someone else's idea that works, adding to it and sharing that with other people," he says.
Tony Hosker, assistant head of Dixons city technology college, Bradford, who visited Box Hill, came away impressed by the speed and frequency of communications between pupils, parents and the school, and the flexibility of the curriculum. "They spend a lot of time building an atmosphere of trust between pupils and teachers to engage in evaluating each other's styles and progress. This works well," he says. "They are also able to collapse their curriculum and personalise it for students with different interests, strengths and weaknesses. This is a flexible curriculum, a fantastic example we can learn from."
Box Hill specialises in sport, leisure and hospitality, and media for Years 10-12. Students are given time out from the normal timetable, for instance to be coached by professionals hired by the school, or to attend a hospitality and restaurant training institute. In its junior tennis school being set up next year for 10 to 15-year-olds, they will do two hours of tennis followed by two hours of lessons and so on, with no age-grade classes, just individual learning programmes for all. It will be run by Chris Kachel,who, as a pro player, twice beat Arthur Ashe.
Matthew Bate, 16, who is on the brink of being taken on by a professional Australian rules football team, says: "I came here because it gives me the best chance to do what I want. They are flexible with my training during school time."
Hannah Hearne, 17, is through to the world finals of a student waitressing competition. "At my old school they offered everything but ran nothing.
Here you get a genuine service. I've worked at Sofitel as a pastry chef and I've done four or five work placements," she says. A test of the school's success is that, where once it was forced to close its middle years because of falling rolls, it has doubled enrolment to 600 and is now vastly oversubscribed, with many pupils travelling up to two hours to get there.
South-west of Melbourne, the sun-baked slopes behind Bellarine secondary college are lined with 3,000 vines, evidence of a different but equally ambitious attempt to respond to pupils' needs. The Bellarine peninsula is famous for the world surfing championships and is a training ground for life-savers, but most locals get jobs in its vineyards or mussel, scallop and oyster farms.
When Colin Sing became principal three years ago he wanted to transform its worryingly high drop-out rates. Recognising that 40 per cent of young people in the area - twice the Australian average - go straight into jobs or apprenticeships, he introduced a vocational and applied learning programme of extraordinary breadth. It is geared to local businesses in wine production, fish farming, horse management and plant cultivation.
Aviation mechanics will begin next year.
"We are building pathways into employment," says Paul Stolz, co-ordinator of the programmes, who previously worked on a wilderness project for adolescents with severe behavioural problems. "Next year, kids will start constructing an aeroplane. Others will be taking a training certificate in equine studies. They'll go to an equine park to do practical work - though they'll have to supply their own horses."
The school vineyard already produces Vermelho and Pinot Noir grapes and is expected to start making a profit of A$10,000 to $20,000 (around pound;4,000 to pound;8,000) a year from 2005; the school fish farm will breed mullet and bream commercially in tanks using a water re-circulation system.
The nursery has become the main supplier of indigenous plants for the peninsula's farmers who buy them to cover land that has been stripped of trees and bushes, a common environmental problem in Australia.
None of this could have been achieved without an extensive network of partnerships with business, government departments, city authorities and non-governmental organisations. Giving Stolz the responsibility and time to develop them has been crucial.
The nursery, for instance, is supported by an aluminium smelting company, an environmental organisation, the City of Greater Geelong and the state Department of Sustainability and Environment. The fish farm is backed by Great Southern Waters, which wants to lure skilled school leavers, and the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute.
The pupils work on skills to help them find work, such as making decisions, teamwork, taking responsibility, using IT and completing tasks. "We saw a need to build engagement for students at school and now we are seeing an improvement in retention rates," says Sing. "They've gone up by 10 to 15 per cent in years 11 and 12 in the past couple of years."
The partnerships have also raised the profile of the school in their communities where parents are focused on getting their kids into jobs, rather than into university. "We weren't getting the number of students we should have from feeder primaries before, but that has improved," Sing says.
Richard Hartley, assistant head of King John School in Benfleet, Essex, who visited Bellarine during the iNet conference, says: "The move for pupils aged 14 to19 in the UK is towards servicing the needs of pupils. Here they are altering the curriculum by working with training organisations to make it relevant to their pupils' futures. " The Australian and British school leaders share a belief that schools across the world face common problems and can share the answers. Sing is keen to broaden his own staff's knowledge by setting up links with a school in the UK. And Box Hill's Wayne Craig, who has won a A$50,000 award to research outstanding leadership in the US and the UK, says this is the future.
"I think there's about to be a drastic change in the way schools work. In the next five years, exams will be online here and the only way systems can respond is by working together. The pace of change is so great, there are so many issues, that you have to share knowledge."
The Specialist Schools National Conference, at Birmingham's International Convention Centre, November 24-26, will focus on personalised learning: global networking. www.sst-inet.net