Open High School Sydney
Wednesday, 30 November 2011
On arriving at Open High School in the Sydney suburb of Randwick (a short bus ride from central Sydney and within walking distance of Bondi Junction) Barry Phillips from Sero was welcomed by the Principal, Deputy Principal, Head Teacher E-Learning and Head Teacher for Enrolment. Open High School is a New South Wales (NSW) Department of Education and Communities (DEC) distance-education secondary school which offers courses in 13 languages to students from Years 9 to 12. Open High School is located in a former ‘physical’ school site.
Open High School provides single courses which form part of the students’ core curriculum, with students being enrolled full-time in both NSW state or private (non-state) schools. Open High School receives NSW state funding and state-school student places are subsidised, with private students paying fees. Senior Language courses are offered at four levels: Beginners, Continuers, Background Speakers and Heritage. Junior students are offered a single course which is differentiated by teachers to cater for students with differing abilities and language backgrounds.
Whilst students are physically based at their home schools (where they have a dedicated home- school supervisor), and may undertake additional learning at home, they also attend the Randwick Open High School site at least one day per term for students in Years 11 and 12 and one day per semester for students in Years 9 and 10. There are some 1,800 students studying at Open High School supported by more than 80 teachers (approximately 65 full time posts). As with other Australian states, staff are allocated to schools by the NSW Department of Education and Communities – Open High School does not recruit its own teaching staff. Open High School operates in-school CPD support for all of its teachers and this may be supplemented with (free of charge) support from the NSW Department of Education and Communities.
Teachers of Senior courses typically support approximately 33 students whilst those teaching Junior courses may expect to support around 50 students. The staff were keen to emphasise that this model allows them to individualise each student’s learning programme and that staff are expected to be ‘on call’ to support students at times well beyond the ‘traditional’ school day. Whilst this places a considerable expectation on the staff it guarantees students a level of support relatively rare in physical schools. As one member of the SMT said “How often could a student expect to get a 30 minute conversation with their teacher (in a physical school setting)?”
Depending on the specific course, students will receive CDs, printed and/or online materials. Home schools are expected to provide their students with any text books or equipment necessary. Budgetary pressures mean that Open High School has, for some time, been moving away from printed materials. This was one (although by no means the only) factor in the introduction of Open High School’s Moodle site in 2005. Development of the Moodle site has continued and it is currently undergoing further tailoring to suit the needs of students and staff (see below).
Even though the students at Open High School are far from socially isolated (being located within a home school community), the school is keen to encourage and nurture physical communities amongst students. This has proved to be a notable success with groups of ‘dispersed’ students making arrangements to meet face-to-face, supporting each other through social networking platforms and, in the case of one French group setting up a dedicated Facebook site.
Open High School does face an ongoing challenge in raising awareness (amongst NSW schools and parents) of its programmes but many schools use the link with Open High School as an attraction to potential students and some schools can be keen to take credit for the qualifications achieved by students studying at Open High School. This is understandable since Open High School students’ results are consistently equal with, or exceed those, of physical schools in the state and year after year Open High School students feature amongst the highest achievers.