History of HRIS
Twenty-five years ago, a group of gifted educators met over tea and cake and discussed their new vision for Hunter independent schools. They were young principals, all in the early stages of their career, and two of them were in their first senior roles at leading schools in the Newcastle area. (Alan Green took over the leadership of Newcastle Grammar towards the end of 1989, at around the same time John Weeks- now head of Knox Grammar- started at the yet to be opened Hunter Valley Grammar School). The actual mechanics of how they got together are, after so many busy years, understandably a little vague. Certainly, it appears that a letter went out from Allan Green’s office, inviting principals from nearby independent schools to meet, with the view to forming more collaborative relationships between these leaders.
Independent schools are notorious for their competitive ethos - one could argue that it’s part of their DNA - so this was a relatively unusual move by Green. However from Green’s perspective, it was just common sense: his previous position had been in a country area, where local schools - isolated by geography - tended to join forces and organise sporting and cultural events. He remembers that when he arrived in Newcastle, the local independent schools “...were sitting around like a lot of islands. And I wasn’t used to that, because where I’d come from there was an association that got together and was of mutual benefit for each of the members”. Recalling this close network of country schools, all dedicated to common goals, the sharing of resources and a sense of collegiality, Green must have asked himself ‘why can’t that work here?’
At the time, options for independent education in the Newcastle and Hunter region were fairly limited. “If you go back into the 70s, say, there were very few independent schools in the Hunter, and then by the time the 90s came they were like mushrooms”, quips Green. Looking back, it is clear that this March 1990 meeting of principals marked an important turning point for education in the Hunter. By coming together, Alan Green (Newcastle Grammar School), John Weeks (Hunter Valley Grammar School), Graeme Irwin (St Philips Christian College), Bruce Youlden (Macquarie College) and Dennis Rye (Avondale College) effectively formed a powerful advocacy group, particularly around issues such as school funding and education policy.
This first meeting led to the creation of Hunter Region Independent Schools (HRIS). As a “collegial network of heads” - in Bruce Youlden’s words - HRIS initially represented eight schools: Avondale School, Belmont Christian School, Hunter Valley Grammar School, Macquarie College, Mayfield Christian School, Newcastle Grammar School, Scone Grammar School and St. Philip’s Christian College (Waratah). “HRIS was instrumental in changing the culture of independent schools in this region”, observes Graeme Irwin. “Whereas before there was always a sense of competition - we were competing with one another - we’ve got more in common that we have differences”. Not only did HRIS facilitate communication between school principals, but through regular sporting and cultural events it also connected independent students and their families across the region.
The first HRIS sports carnival, coordinated by Lorraine Keith - a young sports teacher at HVGS - was held in 1991. Keith had a background in representative sport and was keen to ensure that talented students could navigate pathways into elite performance. After investigating established sporting networks for independent schools, such as HICES (Heads of Independent Co-Educational Schools), and discovering that participation would involve long day trips to places as far afield as Bowral, she made contact with the sports coordinators from Newcastle Grammar, Mayfield Christian School and St Philip’s (Waratah) and they met in late 1990. At this meeting it was decided to hold three major annual carnivals for swimming, cross country and athletics, as well as four gala days for netball, cricket, basketball, soccer, softball and touch football. Impressively, all these events are still held today. “I’m really proud of it” says Keith, “when I look now, and I see our students going through to State selection and so on, because there’s HRIS here, that’s their start, first base so to speak. It’s just grown over time”. In recognition of her early leadership, and ongoing support of sports in the Hunter region, Lorraine Keith was awarded HRIS Life Membership (2007).
A flow on benefit of these early sports carnivals was that HRIS helped ‘sporty’ kids by bringing the AIS to the Hunter. “All of a sudden it wasn’t one school in the Hunter: it was a group of schools who had an influence on the AIS”, said Alan Green. The AIS, or the Association for Independent Schools, is the peak body representing independent schooling in NSW; one of its key services is CIS, or NSW Combined Independent Sports Council, which aims to provide pathways to State and National level sport for independent students. Alan Green remembers that AIS “set up a pathway for independent school students to come through to CIS level, who could then compete against combined high schools, combined catholic colleges, Christian schools, and then they’d pick the NSW side”. These changes to representative sport need to be seen in the context of the wider political landscape. “It was all around the coalition saying everyone should have the right to wear the NSW jumper”, explained Green. However, these pathways not only benefited elite athletes. “It’s overall helped all the students, in all the schools, because I think the standard of sport has also risen over time”.
After the success of the first sporting carnival, the following year HRIS hosted its inaugural cultural event. Like the sporting carnivals, these inter-school events helped boost the quality of student performance. “If you showed video of our first cultural festival, I think we’d cringe”, admits Green. “They’ve become more professional as the years have gone on. The growth in the cultural festival, in the quality, has been quite marked”. While students were able to learn from one another in the cultural and sporting arenas, HRIS became an informal forum for their teachers’ professional development. “There’s now a good deal of open communication or collegiality for staff”, notes Green. For example, a teacher may be the only year two teacher in their school, but via HRIS “I get to talk to the year two teacher in another school, and I’ve built up that rapport, so if I’ve got any individual issues or concerns I’ve got someone to go to”. Bruce Youlden observes that although HRIS was originally started as a ‘top-down’ initiative for school leaders, this sharing by teachers is “very much on the ground, grassroots. It’s collegial interaction and exchange that’s very positive”.
Perhaps the most powerful statement of the importance of HRIS is provided by three of the founding principals, Alan Green, Graeme Irwin and Bruce Youlden, the self-described “long-stayers” of independent education in the Hunter. After noting its value as a source of professional and personal support for school leaders, Youlden commented that the significance of HRIS “really lies in its development in harnessing and putting independent education, as an alternative to public education, on the map in this region”. Along with Irwin, Youlden sees Alan Green’s early leadership as central to the success of HRIS: “your attitude and your willingness to contribute and to bring that collegiality was pivotal”.
Similarly, as a devout Christian Irwin uses biblical language to describe his sense of education’s potential to change lives; he speaks of it as a mission, and regards his HRIS colleagues as being akin to family. Perhaps it was faith that drove Irwin to take the enormous risk, as a new teaching graduate, of starting his own school, a project potentially fraught with administrative, economic and managerial responsibilities.
During this process, HRIS became important to St Philip’s emerging identity. “It helped us to differentiate ourselves from the other schools, that we did have a particular ethos and a particular way of doing things that was our way. And rubbing shoulders with the other schools helped us to refine that and understand that”. As the recently retired head of Newcastle Grammar, a premier local school, Alan Green brings a unique perspective to the history of HRIS. “When I first started”, reflects Green, “people used to say schools are not real places. But as I get older and longer in the tooth, I think they are enormous training grounds for later life, just that a lot of people don’t recognise it. It’s all around teamwork, work ethic, life-long learning, all of that’s there”. Ironically, HRIS itself came to embody the same qualities of collaboration, hard work and ongoing professional development. What started as a leadership forum became just as valuable to teachers, students and their families. As Irwin says, “HRIS raised everyone’s level of excellence”.