Refugee students flourish in a culture of tolerance

Holroyd High is a state high school in Greystanes, in Sydney’s western suburbs. With 60 percent of students from a refugee background, and 88 percent with English as their second language, the school is a joyfully tolerant multicultural environment, where students from diverse backgrounds feel safe, accepted and supported. I spoke with principal, Dorothy Hoddinott about the school’s successes, challenges and unique cultural landscape.

Dorothy Hoddinott was honoured with the 2014 Australian Human Rights Medal, for her tireless work in support of human rights for refugees, and appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2008 for commitment to social justice. Ms Dorothy Hoddinott AO is a fellow of senate and pro-chancellor of the University of Sydney.

Dorothy Hoddinott, principal Holroyd High
Dorothy Hoddinott, principal Holroyd High

Ms Hoddinott has been principal of one of Australia’s most multicultural schools, Holroyd High School, since 1995.  “It was not always like it is; when I came here as principal, it was much more Anglophone. It was not achieving as highly as it should have been.”

There was already an Intensive English Centre (IEC), which had been moved to Holroyd High from an office building in Parramatta in the early 90s. “The centre was isolated and alienated within the school community. There were far fewer students from a non-English speaking background and not much commitment to anti-racism,” Ms Hoddinott explained.

“The high proportion of refugees at the school came about because children of a high school age need to enrol in an IEC first, before they can enter the mainstream school system.  We had one of the larger IECs. We were seeing young Iranians, survivors of the Yugoslav holocaust, Serbians, and students from various Middle Eastern backgrounds. Every new wave of refugees has swept through the school. There’s been a more recent influx of Kurds and Bosnians, then Afghans and Iraqis, and the school has a much higher proportion of young refugees now.”

There had always been refugee students at the IEC, but it was the school’s cultural shift that changed the face of the school forever. “The tipping point was when these young people decided to stay and enrol in Holroyd High, as the climate of the school became more welcoming”. As Ms Hoddinott assured me, “any group will flourish in schools where they are welcomed, and we moved across that line a long time ago”.

Holroyd High’s creed is not merely to support the students from a refugee background. Their approach is more wholistic in nature. Ms Hoddinott cited their collective desire to support all children in the school, including those living with disabilities, those from disadvantaged backgrounds, with the aim of providing an “individual education” for each young person.

Dorothy Hoddinott, who has been the principal of Holroyd High for more than two decades, said, “I never thought I would be this long at a school.” The journey has been “very interesting”, and, I suspect, very rewarding.

Graduation celebration at Holroyd High
Graduation celebration at Holroyd High

“It took 10 years to completely change the culture of the school. It was a long haul; it involved a lot of changes”.  One of the first major changes was to the management structure, redistributing power within the school from a small number of decision makers to a model of “participatory decision making”, which serves by “democratising the way things work, while still allowing accountability”. With a very low staff turnover and reports of people ‘crying and sobbing’ as they leave, it seems clear that teachers love working at Holroyd High. “What we have now is a very purposeful sort of school; people working together in a collegial and cooperative way”, Ms Hoddinott expounded.  The objective for this cooperation is “successful education of all the children” at Holroyd High.  With such a diverse range of backgrounds, experiences, and needs, this is no mean feat and requires dedicated staff, well targeted programs, and of course, funding.

Via an agreement between the federal government and the NSW Department of Education, high school aged children with refugee backgrounds may undertake up to four terms of intensive English tuition at an IEC. If indicated, the school can apply for an extension of an extra term, in cases where a student may have arrived illiterate in their language of origin or has experienced trauma, the effects of which interfere with study. Once students have had five terms, however, they are eligible for no more. Holroyd High operates an intensive support program for students, offering English as a second language and literacy and numeracy assistance. There are two support teachers in the high school, who work one on one with students, and Gonski funding has allowed for the addition of a support teacher in the IEC. As a school with a high number of students from a non-English speaking background, Holroyd High has an allocation of 5.4 full time equivalent ESL teachers.

Because of the high proportion of refugees, Holroyd High has received funding for a head teacher in the area of refugee support. Ms Hoddinott is determined to provide a great deal of support to students, recognising that to progress, the students “need to get up to speed educationally.”

“While we’ve got the money we’re spending it on supporting our kids”. With the funding only guaranteed until the end of 2017, (after which anything could happen), she likened the funding ups and downs to playing Monopoly. “Yes, you’ve passed Go! And then “No, go directly to jail, do not collect $200”. I see her point. 

Graduation celebration at Holroyd High
Graduation celebration at Holroyd High

Last year, 61% of the 2015 cohort of students were offered university places, almost 30% above the state average.  In a school newsletter, Ms Hoddinott asked readers to “think about this achievement in relation to the recent comments by immigration minister, Peter Dutton, who said that many refugees were illiterate and innumerate (sic) and stayed so forever, as they both took Australians’ jobs and cluttered up social security.”

Holroyd High’s academic success is drawing an increase in enrolments from the surrounding areas, and parents are choosing the school for its academic success and a reputation for fair but firm discipline. “I don’t tolerate misbehaviour”, said Ms Hoddinott. Enthusiasm for the school from the local community “waxes and wanes”, however. In the context of current anti-Muslim feeling from some within Australia, those who see the school as ‘too Muslim’ are reluctant to engage with the school.

I asked Ms Hoddinott if she was concerned about terrorism directed at the school, and realised afterwards that she had understood the question to refer to her students as potential terrorists. In fact, I meant quite the opposite, and had wondered if they were concerned at becoming a target of anti-Muslim terrorists. Her response reminded me of just what creates radicalisation, and what combats it. “Our students are very unlikely to become radicalised, because they have hope, they have a pathway to a future”.

Multicultural Day at Holroyd High
Multicultural Day at Holroyd High

While many of Holroyd High’s female Muslim students wear hijab, they are “relatively undressed”, compared to how they would be in their own country. When people ask her about her students’ headwear, Ms Hoddinott often replies, “I’m interested in what’s inside people’s heads, not what’s on their heads”.

The school operates on respect and responsibility, and at the core of the school community’s ethos is the understanding that “we all gain from the diversity of our community”. A student or staff member at Holroyd High comes to understand that “we derive strength from finding our common humanity, and that is more important than the things that make us different”.

New students draw support from largely remaining within their first language group in the IEC, but as students move into the main school, ethnic lines blur. Holroyd High runs events and programs to aid that interaction. “All the activities mix the kids up, so friendships form across ethnic lines. We play a soccer ‘world cup’”. The competition is made up of national teams, though “half the kids in each team can be from another national group, it’s very fluid”.

The school doesn’t only forge new experiences and opportunities for students within the school’s walls. The students have access to programs that develop skills in areas from business acumen to opera. The Australian Business and Community Network (ABCN) is a coalition of CEOs from big business who operate a mentorship program for the benefit of disadvantaged school communities. The program began in NSW, and now operates nationally. Year nine Holroyd High students participate in a one-on-one mentoring program in second semester, and in year 11, girls can access mentorship from successful professional women.  The school participates in the Beacon Foundation programs, which aim to ‘light the path’ from school to further study or employment.

Holroyd High students performing in WOT Opera

Holroyd High students performing in WOT Opera

Ms Hoddinott audibly lit up when she mentioned the school’s partnership with Opera Australia. Following student participation in a workshop, “they were so impressed with us, they invited us to participate in ‘Wot Opera’. The students created and performed their own opera, which was a raging success, and students thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Ms Hoddinott spoke of a “long and cheerful arrangement with Opera Australia”, about which she is delighted, as the experience “exposed the kids to aspects of high culture, to which they would otherwise have no access”.

In a school with such complexity, in a place where so many students have lived through deeply traumatic experiences; where families have been lost; where most of the population has English as a second

language; and where 60 percent of the population has experienced fear for their lives, I wondered what the biggest challenges were. It was interesting to note that Dorothy Hoddinott’s biggest challenges do not come from those within her gates, but are “all external to the school.”

Ms Hoddinott cited the following as her biggest challenges: “changing policy, rigidity of immigration laws, approach to asylum seekers and refugees, lack of flexibility of federal bureaucracy, and politically motivated changes to curriculum.”

Dorothy Hoddinot with Holroyd High students
Dorothy Hoddinot with Holroyd High students

I swallowed up an hour of her time, and following her call with me, she was off to speak with a lawyer on behalf of a member of her school community. “I’ve spent the morning working on a case for a family, who is trapped in an immigration situation with a degree of complexity. I can’t say more.” Another of her concerns was the “weakening of the TAFE system,” making it hard “to chart effective pathways” for those students who may not be destined for university. Her challenges were not quite what I expected. “Kids are kids” she said, and expressed a desire to support them with challenges related to all that has happened to them in their short lives. I think I understand why she has remained their principal for so long. And for their sake, I’m very glad she has.


Suzy Barry

Suzy Barry is a freelance education writer and the former editor of School News, Australia.

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