How Woonona High School turned around its HSC results

HSC results 2016: Top schools revealed

Here's which schools scored big in the 2016 Higher School Certificate.

Belinda Wall knows how to turn around a struggling school.

When she became principal of Woonona High School in 2012, just 15 per cent of the HSC students went on to study at university.

In 2015, 59 per cent did - and based on the 2016 cohort's results and university offers this week, this year is likely to be higher again.  

Former Woonona High student Chloe Jackson who was one of many at the school to do well in the 2016 HSC.
Former Woonona High student Chloe Jackson who was one of many at the school to do well in the 2016 HSC. Photo: Adam McLean

A comprehensive high school north of Wollongong with about 570 enrolments, two-thirds of the student cohort come from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

But that did not stop Mrs Wall and her team from creating high expectations for the kids. 

"Our teachers knew we were capable of doing it," said former student Chloe Jackson, who did the HSC last year. "It was just that first push, and we were on our way."

Ms Jackson clearly remembers the change that swept through the school when she was in Year 9, setting many of her cohort on a different path in life. 

"Before that you didn't really do much, it was very laid back. Kids knew they could get away with not really listening. When Mrs Wall came, it got a lot more - not strict, but organised. The teachers seemed to be a lot more switched on with us, and more focused." 

The school's success in turning around its HSC results has caught the eye of the Department of Education, which has chosen it to partner with the University of Wollongong to develop excellence in teacher professional learning.

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This is how they did it. 

"In 2012, we achieved really ordinary HSC results and we shouldn't have," said Mrs Wall. "We have students who are very capable but they're not actualising their capabilities. So I called a meeting of the executive, and said, what are we going to do?"

First, they evaluated the whole school, interviewed parents, staff and students, and identified key problems.

Poor communication with parents stood out, and so did the quality of teaching and learning. 

To work on the first problem, the school instituted parent workshops at the start of each term from Term 4 in Year 11, where teachers laid out clearly the language of the HSC, expectations and requirements, and advice on how to prepare for exams.

"The parents sit down with students and teachers and get an understanding of what they should see their child doing at home, what they should hear them talking about, and giving them the language to engage with their child's study," said Mrs Wall. 

"We say to the parents, it's a partnership, our kids can't succeed without us all working really hard together."

Attendance at first "wasn't fantastic", but word of mouth spread in the community about how useful the sessions were, and Mrs Wall said now, four years on, the expectation is that every child and their parent or carer attends each workshop. 

The school created an HSC study centre three afternoons a week in the library, funded with additional Gonski money and run by an experienced former Head Teacher in the newly created position of senior student coordinator. 

"Her role is not to teach, it is to track, support and mentor every single HSC student," Mrs Wall said. "So she meets with every student weekly and keeps track of where they're at."

Ms Jackson said the HSC study centre was very important to the students. 

"It was such a quiet environment and a lot of us had siblings or a house where we couldn't focus as well. Everyone around you was working so we were all motivated to do the same." 

She said that as the year went on, even students who had not been interested in the study centre were attending, so much that Year 12 students requested a fourth afternoon a week. Teachers took turns to attend and provide extra help in their subject area. 

In Year 11, all students do a comprehensive interview with the senior student coordinator to discuss their goals and areas where they might need extra support. 

In addition, Year 12 students all have a teacher mentor of their own choosing, to help with motivation, workload management, and general advice. 

Based on the professional development research of UK Emeritus Professor Dylan Wiliam​ and more recently working with Australian researcher Anne McIntyre from the University of Stanford in California, teachers were given extra training to improve their effectiveness. 

This centred on how best to give feedback and drive each student's individual progress. 

If it sounds like a lot of work for the teachers, Mrs Wall won't disagree. "We have high expectations for everyone," she said. 

Ms Jackson achieved an ATAR high enough to get into the combined arts/law degree at the University of Wollongong. 

"I can't rave enough about Woonona," she said. "I've got lots of cousins about to start high school and I tell them all, you've got to send them to Woonona. 

"The teachers, I can't thank them enough. You can do well for yourself, but just to see all the effort the teachers put in, you feel like you owe it to them to at least try."

The key things Woonona HS did:

* created high expectations for students and teachers

* parent workshops throughout HSC year

* HSC study centre in the library after school three days a week

* extra maths tutorials held by teachers before school 

* employed a senior learning coordinator

* individualised learning goals and effective feedback

* teacher mentors for each Yr 12 student

* professional development of teachers