Young people disconnect from mainstream schools for a variety of reasons including mental health challenges, complex family situations, repeated expulsions, drug or alcohol problems, becoming parents as teenagers, socio-economic disadvantage, undiagnosed low literacy or learning difficulties, behavioural challenges, bullying, gender dysphoria – the list is long.
Principal Carolyn Blanden believes all students, even juvenile offenders, deserve a second chance. Her school, Warakirri College, has campuses in Blacktown, Fairfield and Campbelltown, in Sydney’s west, and welcomes students aged 14–22.
“What alternatives do they have but to fall back on a life of crime, if they have no chance of an education?” Blanden said.
“At Warakirri College we do our best to provide opportunities for students and teachers to achieve their goals. Many of our students are amazed at what they are able to achieve in an environment that is empathetic, flexible and creatively supportive.”
“I would encourage any teacher who wants to make a difference to consider Warakirri or a school like it. Our staff are given opportunities to fast track their career through professional development and mentoring together with leadership opportunities which are rarely available to young teachers.”
Blanden’s own career path is impressive and she believes the diversity of her experiences has enabled her to build Warakirri College from five staff and 38 students to three campuses with a fourth under construction and opening next year.
Baptism by fire
A successful graduate of a non-government school, Blanden’s first post was as a music teacher, even though she had studied geology (an achievement in an era when women rarely studied science).
It was a baptism by fire. Burwood Girls High School, in Sydney, had a large cohort of new migrants who did not speak English. Blanden said those students would often end up in her music class, because it was assumed music didn’t require English skills. She learned that if a lesson wasn’t sufficiently engaging, her students would simply climb out the window.
After a few years she took a job as an education officer for a group of financial institutions and visited 150 schools across NSW, speaking to 55,000 students in Commerce and Economics classes.
“What I learnt from that experience is that it didn’t matter whether you went to a state or private school, a wealthy or poor school, it was how the teachers interacted with the students that set the tone,” Blanden said.
She resumed teaching at Knox Grammar School in Wahroonga, where she finally got a chance to teach science. It was the early 1980s, and Blanden was one of only three women teachers in the traditional boys’ school.
“There were no female toilets in the common room, we had to walk a long way,” she said. “The only women in promotions positions were in charge of cooking, cleaning and the school hospital.”
When absent from a meeting, Blanden was appointed Chair of the Affirmative Action Committee – an invidious role in a school that preferred not to employ women. However, it gave her a voice and great experience, and by the time she left Knox 15 years later, things were changing, and there were 45 women on staff.
During her time at Knox, Blanden became involved with the Board of Studies as Chair of the HSC Exam Committee in Geology, Supervisor of Marking for 4-Unit Science and membership of the team that started development of the Standards Referencing system.
She moved to Tara Anglican School for Girls in Parramatta as Director of Studies then became Deputy Principal, where she was grateful to be mentored by her first woman principal, Dr Ruth Shatford.