An interview with Matt Thompson

If a kid’s sitting at home watching daytime TV or kicking a can down the road rather than coming to school, then we have to ask ‘What’s happening at this school?”  Matt Thompson, Principal, Whitfield State School

Matt Thompson, the Principal of Whitfield State School in Cairns, undertook one of the very first Stronger Smarter Leadership Programs (SSLP) in 2007 when he was Deputy Principal at Cairns West State School.  In 2018, we caught up with him and asked him a few questions about how the SSLP has influenced his leadership over the last 10 years.  He talked about how he and others brought in the Academic Success Guarantee at Cairns West State School in 2009, a school with 70% Indigenous students.  In 2011, the school won a state award for the Academic Success Guarantee, which saw a 700% increase in Year 1 benchmark achievement in one year and a 21% overall school increase in two years.  The Academic Success Guarantee is still in place at the school today and the school is continuing to improve NAPLAN results.

Q. What resonated with you from your Stronger Smarter Leadership Program?

The Stronger Smarter Leadership Program was really valuable for me back in my early leadership development. There are not too many leadership programs that really challenge your mindset that way. I’d come from a white middle-class background and the leadership development forum really opened my eyes to hidden cultural perceptions.   Meeting people like Pop John and seeing how articulate he was in envisioning what was right for Indigenous kids really challenged my thinking. That perspective about high expectations really started me on the road of what drives my leadership values now. … not accepting for Indigenous kids what’s not good enough for all kids.

Q.  In 2011 Cairns West State School won a state showcase award for the Academic Service Guarantee.  Can you tell us a bit about that?

The Academic Success Guarantee had its birth in the mindset shift and the cultural understating that came out of the Stronger Smarter work. One of the failures we have in schools is that we tend to run straight at problems with simple solutions when often it’s a package of things that all work together to make a difference. An Indigenous program really doesn’t do very much compared to a full piece of the culture of the school. It has to be about making a difference with every kid to reach their full potential.

At Cairns West State School, we were investing every resource in the kids who weren’t coming to school and it was having no impact. That question we discussed in the SSLP –“Is money going to solve the problem”  – stuck in my mind for a long time. We have to ask ‘What is the impact?’ I’m not saying that it’s not important to have funding but that investment has to show a return, otherwise you’re not doing the right thing by kids.

So the Academic Success Guarantee was about working together with families at a real level of commitment to understand the opportunity cost of not coming to school. Spending money on one hour of teacher aide time in a homework club isn’t going to make up for 10 hours that are lost in teaching time if the kids don’t come to school.

Q. The reverse side of the Academic Success Guarantee is that if parents send their kids to school, the school will provide them with a great learning environment.  How do you work with staff to make sure that happens?

I always ask people what’s your level of commitment? Are you willing to go with whatever it takes in terms of doing what needs to be done on both sides of the fence to affect change for a kid? That’s the kind of leadership that comes out of programs like Stronger Smarter.  You put aside your excuses, stop feeling sorry for yourself and admit the problem and actually go about implementing change and having a crack at stuff that lifts everyone.

The mindset that I came away from the course with was having the courage to have conversations. You’ve got to challenge it in a productive way, but you’ve got to challenge – you can’t stand by and let people have that belief that it’s someone else’s problem to solve.  The bigger problem is when the social justice agenda overrides reality in terms of having an impact. That’s the harder one to challenge as a leader –  the low expectations from a caring point of view.  Stronger Smarter changes that mindset too – that everyone’s got to be doing the lifting.

It’s the excuses around why this kid isn’t performing.  The art of teaching is knowing when to challenge and when to be compassionate and either end of that spectrum doesn’t serve kids. The mastery is being able to go, this situation actually requires me to challenge this family or this kid or that teacher aide or the teacher. And sometimes that requires us to go “look I totally understand the situation. I’m happy to walk in with support here and allocate resources and things, but I need you to do this as well.”  If you’re not willing to at least accept that there needs to be a year’s worth of improvement for a year’s worth of work, then you’re not the right head-space.

How do you build strong relationships with parents?

It’s the real intrinsic question of how to get parents and kids to own part of this journey.  You have to be really visible about having the right attitude. It’s got to be intentionally inviting towards people. You’ve got to suspend your judgments and go, “here’s where we are and what’s the next little piece that you can do to make a difference for your kids?”

I always believed people had good aspirations for their kids, but I guess they really challenged me to think in terms of reciprocity and mutual obligation to each other. The way I talk about it with the leaders that I work with is… you’ve got to jump in the boat together and row together. You got to create an atmosphere of understanding with a firm commitment to working together. You got to keep on those mantras. You’ve got to share your aspirations with each other.  And then you celebrate the achievements as well. When the kids do well, it’s because of the work of parents, kids, teachers, everyone. You have to share that it’s not just the school that’s done this, you know, the reason your kid is doing better is because you’ve made this change. You’re getting this opportunity because you’re doing a great job as a parent. I just think those things are really at the heart of changing behaviour more so than financial punishments or rewards or just programs.

Q. How did you use the data?

One of the things we did was to move to five weekly data because we could show people more regularly that kids were improving. We could get kids to own that, we could get teachers to own that. Our highest mobility kids were in school less than three months, so the sooner we had some data, the sooner we could demonstrate the evidence of impact. All that thinking came out of Stronger Smarter – are we going to just keep doing the same thing or are we seriously interested in having a crack at something and seeing if it works.  It’s not a bolt on thing. This is how we operate in our school and it has an impact on every kid.

When we started sharing the data with parents, it was a shock. We had really good student school opinion survey data, but people really had no idea how much we weren’t meeting the needs of their kids.  Investing the resources into the kids who weren’t coming to school was having no impact, so we flipped that on its head and people saw the opportunity cost of not coming to school and the celebration and achievement that happens with kids who did come to school.

Q.  When you won the award, you were celebrating some great results?

I can’t remember the exact numbers but there were something like 70  kids in grade one, and in the year when we started the Academic Success Guarantee there were 40 kids that didn’t even get off the starting line in terms of reading levels. The next year we had 90 kids and every single one of them got off the starting line. It’s about impacting on that environment in the classroom and again that’s the challenge that Stronger Smarter puts out for everyone – that this is always possible for you. You’ve got to do your part, and we’ve got to do our part. That ‘high expectations for kids rather than of them’.

The Academic Success Guarantee was pitched to the kids who were failing, which meant that our enrolment grew for kids who were failing. People started saying, “If you keep struggling, go to this school because they do a fantastic job.”  So you need leadership that’s willing to deal with that. We’re in a really accountable, short term, system nowadays. You need to have the courage and to be able to say, ‘If we’re doing this, we’re going to get kids coming to school who haven’t been here for a while, we’re going to have those kids with the learning issues … well, that’s going to be a little bit ugly for a while until they start seeing success.’

You have to have good opportunities for kids to work out who they are, whether that’s culturally or musically or academically or sporting. Part of being successful is knowing who you are and what you’re good at. I want kids to enjoy coming to school. If a kid’s sitting at home watching daytime TV or kicking a can down the road rather than coming to school, then we have to ask ‘What’s happening at this school?” If we can make school enjoyable – it’s a pretty simple improvement agenda – but there’s a lot in it when you start to unpack it and actually try to create it.

See more about the Academic Success Guarantee at