Content warning: this story includes references to violence and mental health issues, and some readers may find the content distressing.
One of Armidale Secondary College’s big bragging points is the ‘opportunity class’ or selective program.
Armidale has had the opportunity of partially selective public high school education for a long time, and the Duval and AHS selective kids would routinely get ATARs in the high 90’s. To get into the program, kids need to apply, sit exams, be interviewed, and jump a number of other hurdles from as early as Year 4. Once accepted, they stay in the selective class from year 7 through to 10.
The point of it is to allow the smart kids to be grouped together, and support them to go through the curriculum faster, learn more, and explore concepts more deeply. The program is backed by research that shows that academically gifted kids not only do better in school, but better emotionally, if they are in an environment that values academic excellence and pushes them to use their above-average brains.
There are only 30 places per year in the selective program at ASC according to the Department website. Arguably, that’s not nearly enough for the many bright kids in the Armidale community that is wall-to-wall with academics and scientists who often pass their brains and love of learning on to their kids. But, it turns out that all that effort to get in to the program may not be worth it.
Not a typical parent
Just as selective students are not a typical student, their parents are often not a typical parent. They are involved and active in advocating for their gifted kids to get everything they need to excel.
Mike – not his real name – makes no apologies for advocating for his kids.
“I get involved very quickly. I’m just like, ‘that’s the policy and I’m here to enforce it’.”
“I’m just telling my daughters, you pull the trigger and I’m in there.”
Another parent of a selective student, whom we’ll call Austin, also isn’t apologising.
“I don’t know how or why my kid is so smart but I’m going to fight for him to have every opportunity possible.”
“We care a lot about how he is doing in school. Y’know, when you’re blessed with a bright kid you care a lot more about school and that they’re getting pushed academically.”
A number of parents gave credit to a previous parent who was active in the P&C and meeting with the Principal, doing a lot of work to improve the program, without much success.
“Basically the P&C were making recommendations to the principal and weren’t getting very far,” Mike said.
P&C records provided to the New England Times indicate that issues related to children in the selective program not getting they opportunities they should are frequently on the agenda, including not being able to attend competitions and advanced learning opportunities due to lack of teachers to supervise, lack of teachers in their classes, and a failure to provide advanced curriculum and high academic expectations for the selective program.
Some say that the government’s High Potential and Gifted Education policy is not being followed.
Buffered, but not protected
Because the ‘Teals’, as the selective kids are called, have the same classmates for most of their classes and mix less with the general school population, they are somewhat buffered from the issues in the rest of the school like the disabled kids, but not completely isolated.
Mike has one daughter in the selective program and one not, so sees both sides, but his daughter in the program doesn’t.
“She’s a very academic student. She does not get to see the underside of high school and what’s happening here.”
“My middle daughter is not [in the selective program], so she gets exposed to a little bit more,” Mike said.
Mike says both children have mental health issues and anxiety because of the violence in the school.
“One daughter had scissors thrown at her head by a boy.”
Austin says his son hasn’t been bullied himself and just avoids the ‘bad kids’ but he is disturbed by what his son considers normal.
“The normalisation of the violence is really disturbing. It’s probably the worst thing about it all.”
“I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard of someone raising fighting or the vaping or whatever, and the principal or a deputy replies with ‘all schools have these issues’. No, they don’t.”
“My beautiful nerdy kid thinks it’s ok to punch someone if they talk to your girlfriend. So he won’t talk to any girls,” Austin said.
“It’s causing long term damage to our kids and to our community – I don’t want to think what the crime rates are going to be like in a few years,” he said.
Please teach our kids
The lack of teachers is a high concern for the parents of the high ability children. Austin and his wife were so concerned that their son was not getting the right support that they hired a uni student to tutor him.
“There’s been entire terms where he didn’t have a teacher for a class.”
“You get a report for it like they learned something or did assessments, but they just sat there watching videos.”
Austin says they have discussed moving their son, but can’t see a way for it to work.
“We’re not catholic and don’t feel right about O’Connor, and will never be able to afford TAS, but we can stretch to a tutor,” Austin said.
“And friends who have moved their kids tell us they are six months behind, so he’d probably need a tutor anyway.”
Mike says in his meetings with the Principal Bree Harvey-Bice she would repeatedly raise that the problems are happening elsewhere.
“She said, oh, this is an issue across the state.”
“And I said: I really don’t care. My girls don’t go to schools across the state. They go to school at your school.”
“The number of classes where they’re given something and told to teach themselves, I’m horrified,” Mike said.
“I think Bree said she’s down about 20 staff at the moment and trying to hire in Armidale is quite difficult.”
“At the end of the day, we all want teachers teaching students and the education system to work,” Mike said.
Leadership is lacking
Austin does not believe anything will change without a change of leadership at ASC, and thinks the school needs a very experienced principal.
“I’ve heard Harvey-Bice had no experience as a Principal before she came here. It doesn’t make sense to have such inexperience at the head of a large and complicated school,” Austin said.
“Our kids deserve someone who can do the job, and we know that for sure because they’ve done the job before.”
Attracting government funding of $22,914,744 per year, Armidale Secondary College attracts a P5 level principal classification, with a total remuneration package of $215,358.
Mike is not so sure that a change of principal would make the difference, but agrees there is a serious problem in the leadership.
“Teachers are on leave, sick leave, because they just don’t want to come back to that current management,” Mike said.
“From what I’m hearing internally within the school, It’s not working between the executive at ASC and the teachers.”
“I think that there needs to be an internal investigation within the Department of Education, but I believe that the office with Bree’s partner actually sits above her in the Department of Education here in Armidale,” he said.
Bree Harvey-Bice’s husband is Christopher Bice, the Director of Educational Learning for the Northern Tablelands. He is in the same small office at 175 Rusden St with Matt Hobbs, who is the Director of Educational Learning for Armidale, and Bree Harvey-Bice’s direct supervisor.
“Putting someone else in there is not necessarily going to solve the issue. I think there’s structural changes to the Department of Education that need to happen to enable the teachers, and then we work on the executive of ASC to make it a better place.”
“Bree makes her own bushfires, but it would be very hard for her to actually put action on the ground because she’s so busy putting out all these other fires across the school.”
“So, if you put in a different Principal, the same bushfires exist.”
Multiple parents and students we have spoken to during the course of this series have made it clear they believe Bree Harvey-Bice cannot remain in her role as Principal of ASC. Rumours that Harvey-Bice had resigned were denied by the NSW Department of Education yesterday, but it has been confirmed that Deputy Principal Susan Hoddinott would not be returning to the school.
“Armidale Secondary College principal Bree Harvey-Bice will be returning to the school later this week,” a Spokesperson for the NSW Department of Education said.
“We are currently advertising a deputy principal role after current Deputy Principal Susan Hoddinott was successful in securing a secondment to the Teaching Quality and Impact directorate.”
The Department did not answer questions about falsified reports for classes that did not have teachers or assessments, the lack of teachers, or around the supervisory arrangements and potential conflict of interest in the Hobbs/Bice/Harvey-Bice situation.
This story is part of a series the New England Times is working on about Armidale Secondary College. As the school’s leadership works on ‘codesigning a new vision’ for the school, reports of violence, bullying, and other issues within the school are not dying down. We want to hear your stories – the good and the bad – whether you’re a student, parent, teacher, or other interested member of the community.
Some of the content in these stories is distressing. If you or anyone you know needs help, please contact:
- Lifeline on 13 11 14
- Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
- Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636
- Headspace on 1800 650 890
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