On 2 December 2020, Dr Julie McGonigle was announced as the next Head of School, starting in 2022. Julie has been a part of the St Andrew’s Cathedral School community since 2017. Our current Head of School Dr John Collier shares some of the highlights of Julie’s career and how she came to join us from her home in the UK.
In early 2012, I contacted education experts in England to ask if they could suggest some schools worth visiting during my sabbatical leave study trip to the United Kingdom later that year. I asked to be connected with schools which were doing very special things in improving the quality of teaching and learning and hence academic outcomes and which were leaders in Christian education, delivered engagingly and with authenticity. To my surprise, I was directed to a school in an industrial town in Southern Yorkshire, within a community featuring high levels of poverty, social distress and multi-generational unemployment.
On arrival at this school, Trinity Academy, I was introduced to the senior Vice Principal, Dr Julie McGonigle. Her story was extraordinary. A few years before, OFSTED (the Office of Standards in Education), which is the equivalent of NESA in NSW but with much more menacing authority, had declared the previous school unsatisfactory and closed it. A new school was opened on the same site, with the same students (1350 of them!), and the same staff. However, there was new leadership and governance and a new building. Dr McGonigle and the leadership team were given responsibility for transforming what appeared to be a difficult situation. A few years later, the academic results had gone ‘through the roof’ such that the school was receiving national recognition. It was absolutely stunning! I of course wanted to know how this had been achieved.
As I walked around this large school, I saw no students ‘in trouble’, no one off task, indeed, nothing except complete engagement. Every student was impeccably dressed. When students entered Assembly to listen to Dr McGonigle’s (superb) Christian homily, no student spoke from the door coming in until the door going out at the end. The school was splendidly ordered.
I was introduced to Assistant Principals who reported to Dr McGonigle and who, at the press of a couple of keys on their computers, could call up the academic results and effort grades, tracked over time, of any student and could provide an analysis of the results in any subject across the board. They were then able to direct particular assistance initiatives to each student as required. I came back to Australia wanting such a system. This was the genesis of our data dashboards.
To my great surprise, I received an email ‘out of the blue’ from Dr McGonigle in 2015. It didn’t take the then Deputies and Chairman and I long to issue an invitation! The outcome was that Dr Julie McGonigle spent all of 2017 here at SACS, working in our school as Deputy Head Academic Improvement. Improve we did, albeit from an already very good base, to one of greater excellence. Dr McGonigle’s work with staff and selected students was transformative. Students and parents also warmed hugely to her. Not only was her English experience, in a harsher environment than Australian education in general and SACS in particular, easily deployable at SACS, but her qualifications spoke loudly into our context. An honours degree in English, a Masters in Science from Oxford in the area of Educational Research and a Doctorate from Oxford were a wonderful base for incisive interventions.
It was not long after she arrived in Australia that her excellence was recognised within the broad educational context. She gave the annual set piece Armitage Lecture, one of the most significant public lectures in education in this state, spoke as keynote to the NSW Parents Council AGM and was asked to stand in for the Archbishop as keynote to the Anglican Education Commission annual dinner meeting!
Since returning to the UK, Dr McGonigle has worked initially part-time for SACS. She was also deployed as Director of the Teaching School for the Emmanuel Schools Foundation, a group of six schools, and was invited onto various Trusts as a Governor (what we would call a school council member). Dr McGonigle was also invited to be a keynote speaker at a European higher education conference. She has also lectured in the Master of Education Degree program at a university in The Netherlands. Closer to our situation, she has continued to develop major professional development packages for staff, mentored a number of our senior staff members, and been active in policy development for SACS. In each of 2018 and 2019, Dr McGonigle was able to follow through these initiatives personally with extended time in situ at SACS. The year of COVID-19 has prevented that occurring in 2020.
It was not long after Dr McGonigle arrived in Australia that elite Australian schools commenced to attempt to head-hunt her for positions as Head. Back in England, she continued to receive such interest from Australia and, indeed, from within England itself, right up to the level of system leadership. It is greatly to the benefit of SACS and Gawura that Dr McGonigle declined those positions but accepted an offer from School Council earlier this year to be the next Head of SACS. This helpful transition period will allow full preparation to be made for such a handover.
It probably remains to be said that what is already clear to many of our staff, long-term parents, older students and members of School Council: Dr McGonigle is a world class educator with an illustrious career trajectory already, who will serve SACS with great distinction. I am sure you will make her extremely welcome as soon as she escapes COVID-19 ravaged Britain (!) and arrives in Australia, at a time yet to be determined in the second half of next year.
Dr John Collier
Head, St Andrew’s Cathedral School and Gawura School