Turnaround time

Chris Bradbury was appointed Principal of Northholm Grammar School in 2019. SMJ talked with Chris to understand what it takes to turn around an ailing school.

SMJ: Tell us about this beautiful school.
Northholm Grammar School was established in 1983 and is situated in picturesque and semi-rural Arcadia on the outskirts of Sydney. The philosophy behind the establishment of the school was that it would be big enough to ensure both leaders and teachers could provide the necessary academic excellence for its students, but at the same time ensure each student was cared for and nurtured. It’s a very peaceful setting — in the beginning, I had to pop out of my office a few times just to make sure there were students here and teachers in action because it’s incredibly quiet and tranquil. We’re fortunate that it’s very much a school embedded in nature. It’s so important nowadays that students have space and can make the most of their environment. At times it feels like you’re in a park and you’ve got classrooms, but you’ve also got the classroom outside and there’s no doubt that assists in terms of thinking and learning across the school.

SMJ: Tell us a little bit about Chris Bradbury.
CB: I always wanted to be a teacher; I think from as early as Year 7. I was certainly inspired through my high school years by strong teaching. My Modern History teacher in Years 11 and 12 was an outstanding role model in terms of curriculum expertise. He not only knew history but loved it. And he had this ability to just captivate the class at every point and never lose that sense of enthusiasm. I went to The University of Sydney and was very fortunate to start my career at Hurlstone Agricultural High School, then The King’s School and now Northholm Grammar School. First and foremost, I’m a passionate teacher, and I think that passion and enthusiasm for teaching is something you can never lose sight of, even when you take on educational leadership positions. I’ve always been a firm believer that the heart and soul of a school are in the classroom.

SMJ: What prompted you to study Educational Leadership at Harvard?
CB: I was very fortunate at King’s because I was there for 12 years and was able to hold a number of positions. I was given the opportunity to be the Head of Department of History and Legal Studies and that was going really well. Then in my third year I felt I was at the point where I needed to look at completing some further postgraduate work. I had completed my master’s a few years earlier and my aspiration was to be a Director of Teaching and Learning. That was where I saw myself. So, the opportunity to complete a Graduate Certificate in Educational Leadership at Harvard was too good to let go by. And it was a phenomenal experience. It obviously prepared me very much for the teaching and learning side in terms of developing a learning culture, but it also allowed me to develop other skills such as how to bring people together, how to have a clear vision and how to drive optimal performance by creating buy-in. To have the opportunity to engage in a program that allowed me to form connections globally with like-minded educators, and to work with some of the best academics at Harvard, was a tremendous experience that allowed me to understand schools and also to understand leadership at a new level.

SMJ: What does school marketing mean to you?
CB: I think it’s how you project your school. It’s really important as a school to have a very clear vision and a narrative, and you want to ensure that vision and narrative are carefully communicated. What I love about effective marketing is that you are presenting your story. But you also want to engage in conversation with the community, so you can see how your story is resonating with both the people within your school and those families you’d like to join. So marketing is communicating your narrative; it’s establishing a strong brand you can be comfortable and confident that people are communicating in the language and detail that you’d like.

SMJ: What role do internal communications (to parents and staff) play in student retention?
CB: Retention was certainly the most important feature of the marketing process for us. I made a point very early on to get to know the community. I established a parent forum within my first week to communicate who I was and my vision for the first year. There were a number of questions from families that actually led to some one-on-one follow-up meetings. That enabled me to very quickly understand how the school was operating, what people valued, what was important and the opportunities for change. I attend and speak at every information evening because I see those as really good opportunities to communicate the vision. We also have a weekly newsletter and, whilst it can sometimes be quite demanding to have an article written each week, it has proved to be a tremendous way of keeping the messaging very clear and then testing to see how that particular content is resonating with families. Having both a written and verbal presence is critical in terms of internal marketing, as well as ensuring the community knows that my door is always open. I’m keen to engage in conversation.

SMJ: Introvert or extrovert?
CB: I’m probably a little bit of an introvert in terms of working with others. However, I love public speaking, so that surprises people. I think sometimes I can be quietly spoken and I really like to get to know people, but put me on a stage and I can talk and I love doing so. It probably goes back to my public speaking and debating days as a student.

SMJ: Why did you take on a turnaround school as your first headship?
CB: Looking back after a year, I really did go headfirst into this role! But no regrets. I think one of the reasons for a successful start has been that I understood the realities of where the school was at and what the job would entail. I’ve been very fortunate to have a number of mentors in my career, so it was terrific to be able to engage with them, to seek their advice about what’s important to a school and to consider some of the initial steps as well as the long-term vision and goals. But I just saw this as an exciting opportunity. Northholm is a wonderful community. It really is. It’s a community made up of wonderful people and outstanding students, and the school has enormous potential. Part of leadership is creating a sense of positivity and direction, and I’ve really enjoyed that; regularly communicating with the community and building our capacity to achieve great things, but at the same time being very much grounded in the knowledge this is a process that is going to take a number of years. That means continually ensuring you have the community on side and understanding the journey, with the result of them enthusiastically taking on that challenge with us.

SMJ: Has the change management process worked like you imagined?
CB: I think it’s worked well, and within our context it’s an ongoing process. What I’ve been particularly pleased with, and probably one of the differences between our context and others, is that the sense of urgency was greater.

SMJ: Looking back, what would you have done differently in your first year?
CB: I probably took on too much. Being in the position of Principal, obviously the buck stops with you. It’s natural in any new role, let alone being Principal, that you want to have control over a number of areas and make sure everything is operating well. One thing I would probably do differently — and I certainly have the confidence to do it this year — is to delegate a bit more. I think there were a number of tasks I took on that I didn’t need to. But that sense of urgency was incredibly genuine. I remember communicating to the staff quite honestly that, from a financial position, it was liveable for a time but, like any school, your life depends on enrolments and on how you manage your finances. So I was able to communicate effectively what the circumstances were without making it too traumatic or sensational. Staff appreciated constant engagement with them about where we were at financially and with enrolments. A number commented they had never received that level of information before and that’s obviously information they needed to know. It was important they were aware when we made gains, and that we were constantly evaluating what we were doing as well. And I think to just be aware of our context, where we were at and where we were headed, so that everyone’s on the same page in terms of what we want to achieve.

SMJ: You’ve had to make some tough decisions, particularly in relation to people. How have you communicated those?
CB: It’s one of the toughest parts of the job and it’s certainly a situation that no Head likes to be in. You have to be incredibly honest and transparent. If you’re constantly communicating with your community, with your staff — where we are looking to grow and develop, where there are concerns, what the limitations are, as well as where there have been great achievements — it means that when you eventually announce those decisions, while they could still be deemed as a surprise, they’re not coming out of left field. And I think that is important. I’ve tried to ensure that I’m very clear that my heart and soul are for Northholm. So, when you take on a role of this magnitude you want to do everything that’s in the best interest of the school, and that includes everyone who is a part of the community and who has been involved with the community.

SMJ: What does the new marketing focus look like at Northholm?
CB: I think it’s a marketing focus that has a few more wins and which gives us a new, fresh and energetic platform. It aligns with our strategic intent, where we’ve made it very clear who we are as a school. For us, 2019 was a year of courage, and courage comes before confidence. Our marketing this year will reflect the fact that Northholm is becoming more confident in articulating who we are, building the brand that creates that sense of pride for our families and is attractive to families interested in joining us.

Insight applied

  • Have a clear vision.
  • Establish a strong brand and communicate your narrative.
  • Drive optimal performance by creating buy-in.
  • Align your marketing with your strategic intent.

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