Larging it

11th July 2003 at 01:00
The school of the future uses many specialists from other walks of life. Its core of permanent staff are learners as well as teachers.

At Melbourne's Methodist Ladies College, Gail Costello taps the keys on her notebook computer and a stunning visual array of shapes appears as she proudly shows the work of one of her 14-year-old maths students.

Having completed a class topic on geometry, the girls have used their own laptops to develop a multi-media assignment summarising what they have learnt. The result is 24 arresting displays, with colourful graphics, voice-over definitions and 3D images of revolving geometric figures.

Ms Costello says she adapted the electronic assignment idea after a colleague demonstrated something her English class had produced. It was part of the school's professional development programme and 38 teachers gave presentations to the staff of projects they were working on.

"This is the teacher-as-leader scenario which is a strong part of our professional development," she says. "It's focused on action research, with the aim of making a difference to student learning and using technology in ways that haven't been done before."

As acting principal, Ms Costello is head of a 120-year-old private school located on a large site in the leafy middle-class suburb of Kew. It has 2,150 girls, from kindergarten to the final school year, as well as 750 full-time, part-time and casual staff.

According to Brian Caldwell, dean of education at Melbourne university, it is one of the best examples in the world of a model of future schools identified by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

These employ a large, varied, flexible workforce - there are about 170 specialist coaches in the arts and sport at Melbourne - and staff network widely. This encourages up-to-date pedagogical methods and greater innovation in teaching.

Last year, the school was judged by a panel of seven educationists, including Professor Caldwell, to be the "school of the year", an award promoted by The Australian newspaper. The school was in competition with nearly 300 others.

Until the principal, Rosa Storelli, returns from leave, Ms Costello is also in charge of a business operation, which runs on a budget of some AUS$27million a year (pound;11m) - $5m from government. The rest comes from student fees that range from $8,000 to $13,000 a year.

The money enables the school to provide resources that state schools can only dream of. As well as the laptops, there is a fully equipped Olympic-standard gymnasium, a swimming pool, music facilities, a recording studio and a sports programme employing 18 PE teachers and 140 specialist coaches.

Methodist Ladies College is renowned because it was the first in the world - 12 years ago - to require all girls from eight to 18 to have a notebook computer. The advanced technology and the multimedia facilites enable students to create and shape their own work.

After Rosa Storelli was appointed in 1997, the school became known for leadership of a different kind in the way teachers were encouraged to pursue their own interests. Ms Storelli and her deputy believe it is the teachers' passion for improving learning that has made the school an education leader.

"The most significant challenge for me was to ensure our college had multiple sites of excellence and not merely in ICT," says Ms Storelli.

"More important still was empowering all staff to be leaders - and to be learners."

As well as widening curriculum choices and expanding the arts, music, drama and PE, Ms Storelli created new leadership positions while breaking down the hierarchies that had developed under the previous long-term head.

"The staff are encouraged to take risks and follow interests," she says.

"If you control everything, growth in a school doesn't happen. You have to let the staff run with things - then they will develop a culture in their classrooms where students are willing to do it too."

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