Fitzroy Community School, Fitzroy, Melbourne

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Fitzroy Community School is founded on a very simple principle: that children should come out of primary school as viable members of the community. With such a simple, and to most parents, desirable motivation, its no wonder this school has survived so well. The method by which FCS aims to achieve this outcome is through prioritising the inter-personal skills, putting into practice where ever possible the ethos behind the school motto which is ‘people before things’.

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Its no wonder Bex and I were captivated by this school when we first came across it earlier this year. Our telephone enquiries had been very open and welcoming, especially given that our self-description had included our interest in starting our own school. Nothing changed when we entered the buildings on Thursday (the buildings by the way are two conjoined three story terraces, on busy Brunswick St, right in the middle of Fitzroy). We were met by children, parents and teachers all chatting and communing in the large school kitchen that also doubles as the staff room.

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Two bright and friendly girls from the Biggies class had been assigned as our guides and promptly led us away through the maze of rooms, staircases and corridors (and bridge!), that make up the learning space. At one point in the maths rooms, Estella and Julia told us with excitement about the reward for finding typos in any of the school literature, 50 cents! The way these two were so engaged as tour guides, I cynically wondered if they had a nice ‘tour reward’ waiting for them as well? But you know I think not, they both just loved where they were.

We got a geographic understanding of the layout but the details of how, what and when were still to come. At 08:50 the buzz went around that it was time for morning meeting and we all went upstairs to the meeting room, a top floor open space that, for the short time before meeting starts, is used by all the boys for their morning ‘bash-ups’ game. It seemed exclusively for the young males and involved jumping, wrestling, pillow fights and ball throwing. We all began entering the space and quickly every student, teacher and parent sat down around the perimeter of the room in a circle.

The morning meeting has a different format each day of the week and is facilitated by one of the five main teachers. Today, Thursday and Faye Berryman, one of the two co-founders is taking the meeting, its story day. We meet Faye for the first time and she begins by warmly introducing us to the school, including that we have dreams of starting our own school, a dream that until that point had remained a mostly private thing for Bex and I. And in this room, with Faye and two of her sons, Nick and Tim Berryman, who are now sport teacher and principle of the school respectively, we were both affected by an emotional entanglement with our dream.

For myself, partly insecurity about whether or not I’m the kind of person who could or should be at the co-helm of an educational facility and also, a warm feeling of being taken seriously by a group of people who a few decades before, had set out on a similar path and who now sit in their realised dream. Faye then went on to read aloud a story from her big Book of Virtues, full of moral and lesson, slightly lost on me until it was opened to question and interpretation, a few appropriate explanations were then teased out from the kids. There was something very old school about Faye and her Thursday morning meeting. She gently commanded attention and authority, and played the role of ‘the teacher’ very naturally.

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Faye and Phillip

After morning meeting we had some time with Philip O’Carrol, Faye’s husband and co-founder of the school. Philip’s main role now is to interview all prospective parents and students. He explains that a 90 minute meeting is what it takes to answer questions and get a good idea as to the suitability of the child for the school. Of course the parents need to be suitable as well, given the alternate nature of this learning space. Explanations are given for elements such as: there being timber, hand saws, hammers, nails and vices freely available to all children in the play area; a general parental consent given at the time of enrolment, covering the school for all the various activities, excursions and camps that happen during term time; the intricacies of the practical application of the method used to produce ‘viable’ children, etc.

Our talk was over an hour long and covered many aspects of education in general as well as more specific details of the Fitzroy experience. We talked a lot about school funding. Philip shared many statistics that explained the inequality of the education system in Australia, the distribution of funding and the shortfall that independent schools are faced with. FCS receives 25% of the funding the local state school receives, apparently on a ‘needs’ basis. He explained that independent schools were made out by the education department to be greedy privateers while the state schools, the champions of the underdog. He talked about the public schools, their increasing sizes and the inconvenience that small schools pose for the big bureaucracy. The cost of funding the big bureaucracy, accounts for almost half the annual $15500, the state provides for each student in public primary schools.

Regarding different models of alternative education, we discussed the perils of schools that leave their direction up to a negotiated process between teachers and parents. Phillip and Faye had their children in a 1970’s school that was completely parent run and subsequently destroyed by infighting. Since this experience, they ensured Fitzroy was not going to follow the same path. Instead, it is explained to parents that as they are the absolute authority over who teaches their child, they are invited to investigate this particular model and, may choose it or not. If they do, then the teachers commit to doing the very best they feel they can do for the child. The only parental obligation then is to present the school to their child as a ‘good’ school. Accepting enrolment from parents who are unsure and need constant reassurance from their child’s educator, is not a viable relationship.

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The kitchen, lunch room, staff room and beating heart of the school

The school is organised to create a community, homely experience for the children where families (grand parents, parents, preschool age children) are made to feel comfortable to be present any time of the day. Keen and able parents are then invited to help out in class, offer skill specific education classes, share knowledge and add to the richness of the experience. The baby is seen as a highly effective tool, used to foster the inherent nurturing motives that exist in every child. The kitchen is central in its location and purpose, the heart of the school. Fresh fruit, vegetables, dips, crackers, bread, cheese, pizza and many more delights were on the menu during our visit and set up for the children as a serve yourself lunch. The school provides all food for the staff and children and one day a week, a group of parents prepare and cook the bbq for a whole school feast.

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The back garden and wood work area

Classes are capped at 12 students and at the top of the curriculum is interpersonal skills. A disruption in class is not seen as a problem, nor is any child made to feel isolated or wrong, it is an opportunity to practice these skills. The mathematics is put aside and the issue is comprehensively discussed and resolved by the children. When these kids get to secondary school these interpersonal skills are very valuable. The many success stories we heard about graduating FCS students integrating into the various high schools was testament to this.

FCS follows the curriculum as is specified by the Education Department but as Phillip explains, children at FCS spend less time in class (20 camps a year and many outings) than any other school and focus is more on the interpersonal skills, yet NAPLAN results have averaged in the upper ranges. He says there are no promises to stick to timetable, if a horse is having a foal down the road for example, the children will go there. That being said, class room set ups were orientated toward a teacher at the front, talking and writing on a white board, with the students all sitting together around one big, usually round table. In other less conventional schools that we’ve seen, the children have been left to decide how they use the space they learn in and that usually results in children on the ground and teacher in a lower more engaged position.

The weekly timetable is posted up on the walls on Mondays and contains four 50 min teaching periods, after morning meeting, leading to lunch. It’s designed to change for a few reasons, allowing for focus areas to change depending on the needs of the students, spontaneous events such as the ‘foal birth’ example above and also to maintain diversity from week to week for excitement. This also helps to develop the skill of adaptability in the children. All four age groups have a lesson in the first period, 09:20-10:10 and then each age group enjoys an alternating free period through out the morning. The kids love having the free period and spend the time in the play area or snacking in the kitchen, helping prepare food or engaging with teachers, visiting parents and babies etc.

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another school, another sandpit!

FCS is a family founded, community oriented small public school with its mission: Happiness, Viability and Academic Excellence. It is committed to raising viable, resilient, capable children. In my opinion, it is a wonderfully resilient and capable school. In its attempt to create for the children a reflection of real life in the community, it has retained an order of hierarchy where interpersonal relationships, are the foundations for building tried and tested morals and virtues. The children seem happy with good manners and, according to the principle, are taught ‘how not to be annoying’. Compared to The Pine School, FCS is very well ordered yet still allows for moments of freedom. In discussion with many of the children during our visit, 9 out of 10 excitedly told us within the first few sentences of our conversations that Wednesday is lolly day, the day when each student brings a little coin for the weekly walk to the corner store for their bit of unstructured fun.

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