Learning from the International Boys School CoalitionPhilippa Lowe
During the course of the mid-year break, along with a small group of Trinity staff, I attended the International Boys School Coalition (IBSC) annual conference in Auckland. The IBSC is comprised of nearly three hundred member schools across the world who are committed to advancing the education of boys in boys’ schools. You can read more about the IBSC here.
The conference consisted of keynote addresses, seminars, workshops and presentations, but I found the most valuable opportunities came from the informal interactions with other educators. There was a palpable hungriness amongst the attendees to learn from one another, to hear about the initiatives and research that are taking place in boys’ education, and to reflect on the challenges that are being faced in various contexts.
With the support of the TGS Foundation, the School sent three staff who are at different stages in conducting action research in boys’ education: Middle School Head of Taubman House Dr Rachel O’Brien, Field Studies Centre Academic Program Coordinator Ms Leah Arthur, and Year 3 Preparatory School teacher Ms Nadene O’Neill.
Rachel, Leah and Nadene are participants in the Action Research Program of the IBSC which promotes collaboration amongst a cohort of educators worldwide, providing support to undertake a research project in the context of Trinity. All projects are linked by a common focus or theme; for example, the 2022-2023 cohort addressed the issue of ‘Shattering Stereotypes: Helping Boys Cultivate Healthy Masculinity’.
This year, Trinity’s Dr Rachel O’Brien presented the findings of her project, Connectedness Conversations: Applying positive masculinity theory to build boys’ strengths. Rachel’s project drew on her previous doctoral research findings, as well as the wider literature, to inform the design of an intervention, which she piloted with her Year 9 tutor group. Her conference presentation was well-received, with great interest in her ‘Three Cord Model’ for developing boys’ key strength of connectedness: the intertwining of experiences, feelings, and masculine norms. Rachel’s report can be accessed on the IBSC website.
As members of the current cohort, Leah Arthur and Nadene O’Neill will be undertaking action research projects that address the 2023-2024 theme of ‘Balanced Boys: Promoting Healthy Masculinity Beyond the Classroom’. Prior to this year’s Auckland conference, Leah and Nadene participated in workshops to develop and hone their research skills. They will now undertake their projects with the support of their IBSC mentor and Trinity’s Dr Kimberley Pressick-Kilborn. Their research will be presented at the 2024 IBSC Annual Conference in London, which they will attend with the support of a Trinity Pollock Grant for Professional Learning.
While there is more still for me to distill from the experience, there are three impressions that I would like to share at this point.
The first is to reflect on the experience of being hosted by Westlake Boys High School, where the conference took place. Westlake is a public school, with more than 500 students in each of the five year groups that constitute secondary school in New Zealand. The staff, boys and parents of the School community were generous, hospitable and welcoming in ways that are hard to capture in words. As someone who has not spent much time in New Zealand, I was struck by the way that Maori culture is intrinsically and inseparably interwoven with the culture of the School. There was nothing tokenistic about the respect shown to Maori culture, or the participation in that culture by all the members of their school community. I was also struck by the immense pride that the boys had in their school. They had a strong sense of identity, of familiarity with those men who had been students at Westlake before them, and also a strong sense of positive obligation to the community to which they belong. As is always the case for me, spending time in other schools prompts me to reflect on our school, and to wonder what visitors to Trinity would see if they were to visit us in an analogous situation.
The second learning that I took away was that the increasing challenge to the legitimacy of boys schools which we encounter in Sydney and wider Australia is not universal. As I have reflected elsewhere, schools like Trinity are often framed negatively in popular culture and in the media. While these challenges include questions about funding and our Christian foundation, we have more recently seen the repeated assertions that there is something fundamentally deficient about single-sex schools (for boys). It is suggested that such schools are inevitably and necessarily shaping boys who will be problematic for our society, rather than positive contributors. I do not believe that this is the case, and it was refreshing to spend time with other educators who hold similar convictions. However, it was striking to learn that the animosity that we face in our context is not experienced elsewhere. In New Zealand, for example, boys’ schools are accepted and highly valued for the distinctive ways that they can create positive culture and expectations around masculinity, endeavour and social responsibility. This discovery gave me hope that the current wave of vocal opposition in wider society will crest and diminish.
The third point that I took away was a renewed conviction about the importance of school culture. School culture is powerfully formative. It establishes the norms and patterns of behaviour that are accepted and appropriate. Culture provides the ‘scripts’ that we internalise and enact. If culture is understood as ‘what we do around here’, then it follows that boys learn how to be a man from the men around them. In particular, in a school, younger boys learn from the older boys, for good or for ill. The primary concern of a school leader is the shaping of school culture.
I heard a heartwarming story from a member of the community recently. He wrote to me as follows:
I was taking my almost-five-year-old daughter for a bike ride around Henley Park Enfield mid-afternoon, and there was a group of 30 boys taking a drink break from soccer on the footpath blocking our way. My daughter is great on the bike, no training wheels, and had real momentum etc. The boys saw her coming, one said ‘watch out’ another said something like ‘look she’s really good’ then another said ‘let’s clap her’. The boys then all stepped aside and gave her what felt like a guard of honour and loudly clapped her through as I jogged along behind her. She was absolutely beaming to be recognised by these ‘big boys’. I know from experience that this is very rare behaviour, and I was prompted to write to acknowledge it. The boys clearly were community minded and aware of their setting in a public park, but for a bunch of I assume 13-14 year old boys to spontaneously cheer on a little girl on her little bike was in my estimation a sign of great leadership and genuine good will.
Culture is not as easy to measure as marks or grades. It is not as tangible as buildings and facilities. It is not easily or reliably captured in photos, videos and brochures. However, it matters more than all of them. Stories like the one above give me hope that our boys are shaping, and being shaped by, a positive school culture.
Tim Bowden | Headmaster